Why America Is Culpable for the Murder of James Foley

James Foley

An article in The New York Times yesterday revealed that ISIS demanded a ransom for James Foley’s release, according to his family. The U.S., along with Britain and Israel, refuses to pay ransoms to terrorists; kidnapping is a main source of income for Islamic militants. Al-Qaeda and splinter groups like ISIS have raised around $125 million extorting Western nations.

The Obama administration has admitted that it tried and failed to rescue Foley and other American hostages this summer. Attempted rescue is the correct course of action, but it is so much riskier than simply transferring money into a numbered account in some shady country. Foley paid the ultimate price for that risk as well as for our no-negotiation-with-terrorists policy.

The Foley family must be reeling in ways I can only imagine, not just from shock, but from ambivalence about our policy. I know I am. Had Foley been French, he would be back at home, maybe on assignment somewhere else.

But liberté is a cheap socialist whore, Mrs. Foley. True freedom is expensive.

If I think of this intractable policy as a person, it looks like Maggie Thatcher facing down a miners’ strike, all toothy resolve and bravado: “We will not negotiate with terrorists.” Our resolute, unbending stance seems so inhumane to the rest of the world. Why can’t we be more like France? What are a few million dollars us? It’s going to buy our weapons, anyway, but they’re a sneeze in the wind compared to the might of our armed forces. Is it really a problem?

America doesn’t give a fiddler’s fart what the rest of the world thinks. It isn’t just because they don’t vote, and so have no influence on policy. It’s because life is essentially good here; America is essentially good. Sure, we have our Sarah Palins, our terrible gun-control problem, our repulsive religiosity, our embarrassing immigration policy, the death penalty. But every nation has its positive and negative aspects. Even the ostensibly more compassionate French have right-wing bigots, intense racism and racist policies, and fashion designers they lionize who spied for the Nazis. We just have more people and therefore a greater number of assholes percentage-wise, and we aren’t muzzled, and we’re louder than ever because of the Internet we invented, which unifies mankind in ways not conceived of when I was a kid. And the whole world cares about what we say and do because we tell them what to say and do, and we have nineteen massive aircraft carriers patrolling the streets, more than all other nations combined, that’s why.

Who would you rather had the world-leadership role, anyway? Russia? China? Someone has to do it, you know; it’s the way society works.

I don’t need to sing America’s virtues, beginning with our inspiring, correct system of governance, and ending with everything we contribute to the advancement of global civilization. America sings them relentlessly herself. The point is those virtues more than counterbalance the horrendous wrongs we often commit. I know: in theory, there is nothing to justify wrongdoing on the scale we wreak it, but at least we try to evolve, try to correct ourselves, relentlessly tweaking our system, resolving our injustices law by law. It’s messy, it’s enormous, but we get up every day and do it, and miraculously we keep our shit together like nobody else. No matter how shakily, we progress, dragging the world behind us with the help of our allies. We certainly aren’t pining for the Dark Ages and cutting off the heads of the citizens of enemy nations.

Passive cultural hegemony like what America has unleashed on the world is the most insidious, effective form of colonialism. It cannot be booted out or undone; people embrace it, accept it, want to be a part of it. America is more than a nation; it’s an operating system with a WYSIWYG interface that sits on the ether of global culture. If you join the network and stand alongside us, you will have an American future, and it will be prosperous. Yes, you will become like us, that evolution is inevitable, but you may keep your language and the other cultural touchstones that make your nation a separate identity in the first place. Still, it’s advisable you learn English; it’s the code on which OS America is built and on which it runs. And, no, it will never be Chinese or Spanish.

To carry the operating-system analogy further, when Obama says ISIS has no place in the 21st century, he means it is a virus that is threatening the system. Even if it cannot possibly bring us down completely, it must be eradicated. There will always be viruses, and we must always try to stamp them out.

Not paying a ransom is no deterrent to hostage taking, just as the death penalty does zilch to stop capital crimes. I’m sure ISIS is overjoyed at the reaction they got from us after beheading Foley; it was up there with 9/11 in terms of impact. So why don’t we just pay up?

However much I want to shrug my shoulders and say, “It’s just money,” I agree that America cannot negotiate with terrorists and pay ransoms. France can: it is essentially a tourist destination and a manufacturer of luxury goods. They do lifestyle, not geo-politics, not in any meaningful sense. They have nothing at stake other than the negative publicity the government in charge will suffer if a citoyen loses his head — it’s to their benefit to pay.

It’s not as if the U.S. government is hardhearted and lacks compassion for what happened to Foley, for what his family must be suffering, the smoldering rage they must feel that their son could have been saved had he been the citizen of another country. But they seem levelheaded; they know we are at war, and their son based his career on war and is a casualty of it. He’s less innocent than a Yazidi child because he wandered into the thick of it willingly.

Our stubbornness on policies like the no negotiation with terrorists is essential to our strength. It isn’t just a perception of that strength but an integral part of it. These rabid sociopaths cannot ever weaken us, whether they release hostages, kill them or keep them indefinitely. These types of policies are part of the fortifications that shield us. They say, You will have nothing from us. You can harm us, but you will do no damage. We will not give you a grain of hope that you might win.

Indeed, the unyielding, tough-guy stance is part of the necessary strategy for the world’s only superpower. These policies are made unemotionally, based on reason, experience and consensus among ourselves and our most important allies, our strategic partners. This doesn’t mean that as a people we do not scream in pain when we see our journalist son, a champion of our sacred free speech, kneeling before a terrifying hooded executioner and butchered just because we wouldn’t pay money they have no right to. I’m sorry, Mrs. Foley, but you have to admit that is supremely fucked up.

James Foley is both collateral damage and a catalyst. He paid the ultimate ransom for our unbending policy, but it isn’t for naught. He’s the excuse Obama needs to push back in a mighty way and eradicate the ISIS virus via increased military intervention without the entire country howling about the waste of resources and the lives of our military personnel for someone else’s battles. Foley being beheaded on camera is to Obama what the Twin Towers collapsing was to Bush. Except Obama will be much smarter about this military incursion because, well, he simply is smarter.

The no-negotiation policy is cruel for the tiny minority of Americans who are kidnapped every year. In a way it is a death penalty that our citizens must suffer for choosing to work in that region, whether the reason for being there is journalistic ambition or boosted financial incentives.

So, yes, America is culpable for Foley’s murder. But we aren’t guilty of it.

One day Islam will emerge from dark age it currently occupies; if a religion can be seen as maturing over time, going through phases, then measured against Christianity, Islam is chronologically in the early 1400s. The fact that all religions are wrong and unnecessary doesn’t help societies in their thrall to progress in any great hurry. On the contrary, it’s what holds them back.

Still, I see that the Renaissance is just beginning for Islam. While the notion that all religions go through similar phases might sound like specious reasoning, I believe if we step back and analyze the seismic tremors shaking the Islamic crescent, meaning that region which stretches like a scimitar from North Africa to Indonesia, then we can get a feeling for what the future will bring. It is a stormy spring, but it’s a spring nonetheless.

Another reason I don’t question that what we are watching is indeed a renaissance, that the Islamic cultures will rise again, is because I believe a social group might take a few steps backwards from time to time — Prohibition, anyone? McCarthyism? — but ultimately it cannot help but evolve. And it will evolve in large part because of OS America and her technology, the broad access to knowledge that the Internet provides, the transparency of social media in particular; the dialogue with the world at large can only change minds.

The Islamic cultures will enjoy pax americana, damn it. And when they stand down, so shall we.

Being a war correspondent is a life-threatening ambition. Men like James Foley make compelling protagonists in dramas; they’re heroic, macho, reckless with their lives by necessity. It’s like being a Formula One driver, with death or severe injury lurking behind every turn of the track. The major difference is race-car drivers aren’t essential to our society, to the algorithm of OS America; we need war correspondents to deliver us that objective, intergrified report from the battlefield, to keep our military and government in check. It is largely a thankless risk of life and limb; they do it for a byline that few outside the Fourth Estate pay attention to, and for a salary few would ever accept in exchange for the level of risk involved.

When The Wall Street Journal South Asia bureau chief Daniel Pearl was beheaded in 2002, we lived in a pre-social media era. ‘Viral’ referred to disease, not information. Not as many people were exposed to the true horror of what Pearl experienced; American mass media threw the usual polite veil over the horror. You could see it, but you had to dig deep within the Internet. Not so with Foley.

It is too difficult for us to process thousands or millions of dead and wounded. It’s weird, abstract, outside our personal experience. We are still counting the millions who perished in World War II. We can only touch them and connect with them one story at a time. Otherwise, they are just rows on names on memorials.

But we are all James Foley. We all knelt there in the heart of barrenness, a young American far from home, un-ransomed, a victim of our necessary policies, but more a victim of the insane, barbaric culture standing above him in a cowardly mask and a sword.

There is nothing I can say to console you, Mrs. Foley. Nothing was worth the sacrifice of your son, nothing can assuage the trauma of a mother watching her boy killed like a ritual sacrifice to a heartless Abrahamic deity. But change will come from his death. It will be gradual, it will be minimal in the scheme of things, but it will happen. Few of us can say that our lives have that much purpose. It was a ransom demanded by progress in the pushback against the enemy. It is paid in full.


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