We must not play into Isis's hands

The use of terror as a tactic is not new, but the internet has changed the environment beyond recognition
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The Independent Online

The so-called Islamic State (Isis) is engaged in a propaganda war. It is a war that democrats should refuse to fight on the terrorists' terms.

Isis wants to provoke the West into overreacting, so that it can present its adherents as soldiers in a war between civilisations. It hopes that beheading hostages will help to escalate outside intervention in Iraq and Syria, which would feed an ideology that sees Western foreign policy as a crusade against Muslims. More than that, it hopes to inspire disturbed and rootless young men with its ferocity and self-belief, in order to recruit them to its cause.

We should be careful, therefore, how we respond to the news of Alan Henning's murder. The Independent on Sunday refuses to use footage from Isis videos, and we try to avoid any suggestion in our reports that Isis has widespread support or that its followers are motivated by religious devotion.

Most British media organisations seem to have come to a similar conclusion, after some confusion in response to earlier atrocities. The use of terror as a tactic is not new, but the internet has changed the media environment beyond recognition. Some editors made the mistake of thinking that, because videos are available online, linking to them or using stills from them was a value-free decision. Of course it is no such thing.

Giving publicity to Isis is like paying ransom to more conventional hostage-takers: it is what the terrorists seek, and giving it to them indiscriminately is helping their cause. Just because there are no rules on their side does not mean there are no rules on the side of respect for life and human rights.

We aim to report the facts, without going into excessive detail about the ways in which Isis murders its victims, and to provide the information the reader needs to understand the tangled situation across the Middle East.

Instead of dwelling on Mr Henning's death we have sought to focus on his life: his humanity, his courage and his devotion to the cause of helping civilians in Syria's civil war. His commitment to saving lives and easing suffering offers a powerful contrast to the values of his captors, glorying in torture and death.

There are those who suggest that last month's House of Commons' vote to allow British forces to take part in air strikes against Isis played into the terrorists' hands. That Isis is trying to provoke a Western military response should be only one consideration in assessing what the West should do. In any event, we should not confuse caution with washing our hands of responsibility.

There is a difference between overreaction and a measured response. Public opinion in this country supports American air strikes in support of local forces on the ground, Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian, as they try to push back the Isis advance. It is important that other Muslim states are involved in these operations.

The significant thing is not the token UK involvement in air strikes, but the effort to promote political settlements, with all the costs that entails, in Iraq and Syria that would minimise local support for Isis. That said, if the Prime Minister believes that UK forces need to operate in Syria as well as Iraq, as we suspect he does, he should have the courage to make that case in public and to seek Parliament's approval.

We should steel ourselves for further horrors. Isis knows no restraint in its search for ways to shock and intimidate its enemies.

In the face of such cruelty and delusion on the part of Isis, it is hard to formulate a response, especially when the diplomatic and military options are so complex and morally compromised. But one thing that we can do is to refuse to play Isis's propaganda game.