What's the most meaningful response we could have to the murder of James Foley?

We should neither look at nor share the images of his death, but remember the pictures he took of others

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The Independent Online

I’ve never been a war correspondent; I don’t have the courage, or the tolerance for discomfort. But I spent a few years working on this newspaper’s foreign desk, and I’ve known enough of them to say that they’re a complicated lot: charming, cussed, recalcitrant and unpredictable, liable to call you up before six in the morning (“Oh, is that the time in London?”) to pass on a blackly comical anecdote as the crumpled boom of a mortar echoes in the background, like a foot in fresh snow. They aren’t the easiest people. But they are amongst the greatest.

What they rarely are is self-indulgent. They don’t want to tell their story; they want to tell someone else’s. The first-person singular is for deskbound columnists who haven’t found anything interesting to write about.

One of our correspondents got trapped in a firefight and shot; it took hours to get him out and to hospital, and at one point we feared the worst. Happily, that fear was misplaced, and he insisted on filing for the next day’s paper.

When his determination to write became apparent, he came under a certain amount of wheedling pressure from London to write the extraordinary story of his experience; he did, but to some consternation in the office he barely featured, the piece focusing instead on the crisis he had found himself in the middle of.

When he finally did get to the dreaded ‘I’, 650 words in, he quickly followed it with the observation that his injury was, “effectively, just a bad flesh wound.” That box ticked, he got back to the people he was observing. The piece was brilliant.

I didn’t know James Foley, but his work, in words and video and pictures, makes it clear that he was part of that noble tradition. His reporting is assiduous, and his writing is crisp and straightforward, never succumbing to the sort of muddying sentimentality that might overcome others seeing such terrible things.

On the Global Post website, there’s a video he shot at the height of the battle for Aleppo, Syria, in August 2012. It’s raw footage, just a series of shaky cuts from the streets and hospital, gazing unflinchingly at the war’s appalling human cost. It runs for eight minutes without a word from Foley, save one urgent question to a grieving civilian: “Who was killed? Who? Who?”

Now Isis - or IS, or whatever the latest repugnant brand identity it is that this collection of godless psychopaths and pirates have adopted by the time you read this - have released a video that seems to show Foley’s murder at their hands. Foley did not shy from telling us of the worst; that Global Post video features images of dead children that are hard to erase. But the images he took were not part of the act, but an impartial record of it.


The footage released by his killers, in contrast, stands with the attack on Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year, where the record is the point. Martin Amis coined the term “horrorism” with reference to 9/11, but it seems still more apposite when applied to these less ambitious crimes, committed by the first extremists of a universally connected era: in one sense trivial set against such a tapestry of indiscriminate violence, they find their force in this very triviality – in the pointed senselessness of an act at once so small and so vast, so strategically self-defeating and yet so unanswerable.

News from so far away cannot really terrorise us here, and so without the pictures, James Foley’s death would in one sense mean nothing. With the pictures, that "nothing" takes on a shape, becomes a terrifying abyss, one we are mockingly invited to stare into by those nihilists who would destroy everything worthwhile so that they might stand atop the rubble and declare themselves kings.

It’s right, then, to decline to look at, or to share, the grotesque imagery of the end of Foley’s life, which said so much less about him than the living of it. But I found myself thinking, yesterday, that this oft-repeated point is nothing like enough.

All too often, in the aftermath of such atrocities, we retreat to this kind of self-examination, obsessing on social media over our reactions, instead of attending to the crime itself. It’s entirely understandable: these murderers are beyond comprehension, and to try to make sense of their actions is an exercise in hopelessness, and the extinction of hope.

In the end, though, whether we see this tape or not doesn’t make much difference. The idea of its existence is not much less powerful than the watching of it: horrorism’s power comes not from the observation but from the queasy conversation that follows. We are better off leaving the afterlife of that appalling video as a footnote. None of it is about us.

Instead, it’s been suggested, we should look at pictures of Foley going about his work, a smiling figure in flak jacket and helmet, a camera in one hand and a half-smoked cigarette in the other. And, yes, remembering Foley this way is better – so much better.

As it happens, I disagree with most members of the remarkable tribe to which he belonged: in moments like this, their stories do matter, making us ask if the information they bring us is worth such a terrible cost, and asking us to pay closer attention to the world that would be invisible without their efforts.

But in that case, there’s another step to take. The best way to tell James Foley’s story, and to honour his life, seems obvious: not through the pictures of him, but through the pictures he fixed in our brains of others, the voices he tried to amplify from a part of the world that it sometimes seems that we would rather forget. In another dispatch from Aleppo, one of the last pieces he wrote before his capture, Foley painted a beautiful, fragile portrait of a Syrian wedding. The groom was a rebel sniper, his bride a nurse who had treated him when he was wounded.

Amid all that horror, Foley found people with something worth celebrating. “No one can stop life,” one guest told him. “No one can stop people. No one can stop who goes with God.”