James Foley, the freelance journalist from New Hampshire who was murdered by the terrorist group now known as the Islamic State, knew the dangers of trying to report from the front lines in Syria. The 40-year-old Foley had almost been killed in Libya, and ended up in protracted captivity. He saw that where once journalists might hope that combatants would recognize their unique role, those understandings — along with other humanitarian standards — have been thrown out the window by the extremist groups that straddle the line between terrorists and militias. Foley knew he would be a target.
But he also knew that if at least a few journalists didn’t venture into Syria, perhaps the most dangerous reporting zone yet encountered, no one would tell of the people who died or were trapped there. The world would be deprived of the information it needed to calibrate an intelligent response. There would be no stories, no witnesses, no truths. And so he went.
Foley’s death, by beheading on a video in which an Islamic State terrorist threatens the United States, is an outrage that will never be forgotten. His family, friends, and admirers around the world, like those in his native New England and at the Boston-based GlobalPost for which he reported, are justly shocked and heartbroken, but also proud. Foley succeeded in bearing witness and, though his death was tragic, it, too, has meaning: It exposes the world to the boundless brutality of the Islamic State, which operates in both Syria and Iraq. It shows why the United States is justified in preventing it from taking further territory, even while cautiously avoiding a deeper entanglement with the hapless Iraqi government.
There is another way in which his death could mark a turning point. Foley saw his reporting as giving a voice to average Syrians, people caught in a chaos beyond their control. Many Iraqis in the parts of the “Sunni triangle” now controlled by the Islamic State are similarly powerless. Some may have collaborated with Islamic State fighters out of sectarian anger against the Shiite-dominated government of outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But those Iraqis can now see the true nature of the Islamic State. More striking even than the viciousness of Foley’s murder was the fact that the Islamic State sought to showcase it to the world. In such a situation, even sympathetic Sunnis now know who and what they’re dealing with. There will be no peace or justice in a “caliphate” created by terrorists. Even in the most dire circumstances, under the most intense pressure, and while carrying the most painful grievances, human beings can see through to basic truths. That’s what Foley believed. And that’s what the world saw in his unforgivable slaying.