Calculated Atrocity

On Tuesday, August 19, a brief video broke into cyberspace showing the decapitation of photojournalist James Foley by an executioner belonging to the self-proclaimed Islamic State (better known in English by its acronym ISIS).

On the recording, the hit man tries to justify the atrocity, arguing that it is an act of retribution for President Obama’s decision to authorize aerial attacks against IS forces that threaten Kurdistan in northeastern Iraq. On the video, the Islamic State threatens to murder another captive journalist, Steven Sotloff, if the United States does not cease its military operations.

The organization Journalists Without Borders stated that Foley was an extremely experienced international reporter who was not working for the U.S. government and did not represent any particular nation. What has happened highlights the threats journalists face in these highly dangerous regions, and their fight to shed light on some of the darkest corners of the world as well as of the human mind.

Foley had been kidnapped in northern Syria in November 2012. In Syria there are three foreign correspondents captive, four who have disappeared, and approximately 20 Syrian journalists in the hands of armed groups, and government forces have detained 30 journalists of this same nationality. The Islamic State has killed several Syrian journalists in recent months, but this is the first case of a foreign journalist’s death.

This terrorist organization’s calculated cruelty is notorious.

Two days ago, IS members massacred the inhabitants of a Yazidi settlement not sheltered in the adjacent mountains, as they had done to thousands of people belonging to that group. Taking advantage of the weakness in the states of Syria and Iraq, its forces have widened out its sector and threaten the region from Lebanon to Kurdistan. Now, with decisive aerial support from the United States, Iraqi and Kurdish forces are starting to reclaim the lost territory.

It would be a mistake to take the execution and the video, in spite of its crudeness, to be the product of a primitive and fanatical mind.

The Islamic State uses the most modern electronic means of communication as an instrument to undermine the morale of its adversaries and gain supporters in the Middle East as well as in Europe. The latter is not a minor threat. Studies of the message from the jihadi who killed Foley, recorded on video, suggest that he originally is from Great Britain. The radicalization of young people belonging to immigrant Islamic families in Great Britain, or in other European countries, creates new and complex challenges for these societies.

The fight against the Islamic State and other similar organizations takes place not just on the battlefield, in Iraq and Syria, but also in Islamic communities and within the families they consist of, in different European countries. It is a global threat.

The Islamic State’s actions raise the old problem of deciding when dialogue should cease and when resorting to force becomes inevitable.

Pope Francis stated on Monday, August 18, that “in these cases where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” And he added: “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I don’t say to bomb or make war, (but) stop it.” In his opinion, the United Nations would be the appropriate forum: “It must be discussed there and said, ‘there’s an unjust aggressor, it seems so, how do we stop it?’”

It is an important step forward. But statements are not enough; it is essential to back up words with force. Everything indicates it will be a very long war.

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