The James Foley video and bearing witness to evil

James Foley
James Foley

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The horrifying execution of journalist James Foley raises an uncomfortable if familiar question: Is there anything to be gained by watching the video of his beheading at the hands of an ISIS terrorist?

It’s a question that I explored 12 years ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was similarly murdered. I searched for the video online and found it at a website whose sick operators presented such fare for the entertainment of their disturbed viewers. I shared it with my friends at The Boston Phoenix, who — to my surprise — published several small black-and-white stills of Pearl’s beheading and provided a link to the full video. “This is the single most gruesome, horrible, despicable, and horrifying thing I’ve ever seen,” the Phoenix’s outraged publisher, Stephen Mindich, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The Phoenix’s actions created a national controversy. I defended Mindich and editor Peter Kadzis, first in the Phoenix, later in Nieman Reports. (At the time I had left the paper to write my first book, though I continued to contribute freelance pieces. My departure turned out to be temporary. And Kadzis, my editor then, is also my editor now: he is the senior editor of WGBH News.) I wrote in the Nieman piece:

Daniel Pearl didn’t seek martyrdom, but martyrdom found him. The three-and-a-half-minute video shows us the true face of evil, an evil that manifested itself unambiguously last September 11…. We turn away from such evil at our peril.

I stand by what I wrote then, but I haven’t watched the execution of Jim Foley. In contrast to the Daniel Pearl footage, the Foley video is bright and clear, in high definition. I’ve watched a bit of it, listened to him speak while kneeling in the desert; but that was all I could handle.

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby takes a different view, writing, “The intrepid and compassionate reporter from New Hampshire didn’t travel to Syria to sanitize and downplay the horror occurring there. He went to document and expose it.”

I don’t disagree. But it should be a matter of choice. Gawker, among the first media outlets to post a link to the video, made sure its readers knew that what they would see if they clicked was “extremely disturbing.” By contrast, the New York Post and the Daily News published front-page images of Foley (I’ve linked to a Washington Post story, not the actual images) just before his beheading — in the New York Post’s case, barely a nanosecond before.

It’s a fine line, but I’d say Gawker was on the right side of it, and the New York tabloids were not.

At the time of his capture, Foley was freelancing for GlobalPost, the Boston-based international news organization. GlobalPost co-founder and chief executive Phil Balboni, in a tribute published in the Globe, wrote:

For those of us who knew Jim, the road ahead will be particularly long and trying. As a lifelong journalist, the path forward for me will be rooted in a renewed and profound respect for a profession that for Jim was not a job, but a calling.

And here is an interview with GlobalPost co-founder Charles Sennott, talking about Foley on WGBH Radio (89.7 FM).

We’ve learned a lot since the execution of Daniel Pearl. One of the things we’ve learned is that bearing witness does not necessarily lead to a good result. Years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not created a safer world.

Do we have a right to view the James Foley video? Of course. Twitter, a private company that has become a virtual public utility, is heading down a dangerous road by banning images from the video. Should we watch the video as a way of witnessing unspeakable evil, as Jeff Jacoby argues? That, I would suggest, should be up to each of us.

Above all, we should honor the bravery and sacrifice of journalists like Daniel Pearl and James Foley, who take risks most of us can scarcely imagine. Let’s keep the Foley family in our thoughts, and celebrate the safe return of Peter Theo Curtis. And let’s send offer whatever good thoughts we can for Steven Sotloff, a fellow hostage of Foley’s who was threatened with death last week.

How offline relationships affect online debates

I had an interesting experience Friday debating politics with Jeff Jacoby and Howard Owens on Twitter. It was the usual: big versus small government, federal versus local, food stamps and the best way to help the poor, etc.

I thought we had a civil discussion, although it got a bit heated at times. Then others came in and were pretty disparaging of Jeff and Howard. And I realized what a difference it makes when you know someone in the real world, and how that changes the way you frame your online discussions. I know Jeff and Howard offline, and I also know they are as intelligent and well-read as I am, if not more so. Yes, I think they’re wrong on some issues, but I know they arrived at their positions honestly and that I’m not going to change their minds by shooting off 140-character rockets.

And it underscored the futility of getting into social-media battles with people you don’t know. It is a massive waste of time. Yes, talking politics with people we know is always a good idea. Listen and learn. Even if you don’t change your mind, you’ll understand more than you did before. And don’t bother fighting with strangers.

Speaking of online conversations … like many, I have found that discussions are often richer and more substantive on Facebook than anywhere else. So feel free to weigh in here.

A Rapturous new attack on climate science

It’s the latest meme among commentators who want to downplay or dismiss concerns about climate change: those doomsayers are just like the Rapture wackos! Three examples:

  • Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “The May 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.”
  • Syndicated columnist Jay Ambrose: “You can, on the one hand, listen to Bill McKibben, who says the raging Midwest and Southern tornadoes are still another sign of global warming doom. Or you can listen to Harold Camping, who recently announced the world would go kaput not too long after Christians were sent heavenward on May 21 by none other than God himself.”
  • Detroit News editorial-page editor Nolan Finley: “The rapture predicters are no more looney than those who want to connect the serial natural disasters to global warming.”

As with Al Gore, Camping and company are a lot easier to dismiss than atmospheric scientists.

Here is a splendid account of how D.R. Tucker, a Massachusetts conservative, moved from denial to acceptance as he immersed himself in the facts. Well worth reading.

Jeff Jacoby tortures torture’s defenders

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes a fine comeuppance to those among his fellow conservatives who claim the killing of Osama bin Laden proves that torture works. Whether waterboarding helped produce the intelligence needed to track down bin Laden is irrelevant, Jacoby says, arguing:

Torture is unreliable, since people will often say anything — invent desperate fictions or diversions — to stop the pain or fear. That doesn’t mean waterboarding will never yield valuable information. Feeding a detainee into an industrial shredder, as Saddam Hussein’s torturers sometimes did, might yield valuable information too. But some techniques are forbidden not because they never work, not because they aren’t deserved, but because our very right to call ourselves decent human beings depends in part on our not doing them.

Jacoby also picks apart the disingenuous notion that waterboarding isn’t torture, citing — as have I and others — the execution of Japanese officers who waterboarded American prisoners of war.

Tax Nazis

Oh, my Godwin. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, onetime scourge of left-wingers who compared George W. Bush to Hitler, now proudly reminds us that he once compared liberal tax-and-spenders to Hitler and Ivan the Terrible.

Globe seeks false balance on Goldstone mea culpa

Richard Goldstone

I’m disappointed that editors at the Boston Globe decided they needed to balance Jeff Jacoby’s column on Richard Goldstone’s remarkable mea culpa regarding Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war with a piece arguing, in essence, that Goldstone didn’t really mean it.

Goldstone, a South African judge and diplomat, headed a U.N. investigation into the Gaza war several years ago, and concluded that Israel had committed war crimes against the civilian population. The so-called Goldstone Report has been a cudgel wielded by Israel’s enemies ever since.

So it was (or, rather, should have been) big news when the Washington Post published an op-ed by Goldstone last Friday in which he says that he and his fellow investigators were way too hard on Israel and not nearly hard enough on Hamas. And he credits Israel for investigating the report’s findings while criticizing Hamas for doing nothing. Goldstone writes:

Some have suggested that it was absurd to expect Hamas, an organization that has a policy to destroy the state of Israel, to investigate what we said were serious war crimes. It was my hope, even if unrealistic, that Hamas would do so, especially if Israel conducted its own investigations. At minimum I hoped that in the face of a clear finding that its members were committing serious war crimes, Hamas would curtail its attacks. Sadly, that has not been the case. Hundreds more rockets and mortar rounds have been directed at civilian targets in southern Israel. That comparatively few Israelis have been killed by the unlawful rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza in no way minimizes the criminality. The U.N. Human Rights Council should condemn these heinous acts in the strongest terms.

Other than a brief Associated Press story that ran on Monday, today is the first time the Globe has addressed Goldstone’s turnaround. Jacoby characterizes the original Goldstone Report — hyperbolically, though not without cause — as a “blood libel,” and writes, “The Goldstone report did incalculable damage to Israel’s good name. Breathlessly hyped in the media, it accelerated the already frenzied international campaign to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.”

The importance of Goldstone’s turnaround can’t be exaggerated. Yet running along with Jacoby’s column today is a piece by Nimer Sultany, described as “a civil rights lawyer in Israel and a doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School,” accusing Goldstone of giving in to pressure from fellow Jews and of making another Israeli incursion into Gaza more likely.

“The lingering question,” Sultany writes, “is whether Goldstone can look hundreds of Palestinian civilian victims in the eye and say he stood up for them in the face of severe Israeli and American criticism.”

Goldstone’s turnaround, of course, is not above questioning. As Sultany suggests, there have been reports that Goldstone had been ostracized by the South African Jewish community — although be sure to check out the correction at the bottom of this New York Times story. (The Times also reportedly rejected Goldstone’s op-ed before he shopped it to the Post, though Ben Smith of Politico says otherwise.)

Nevertheless, what Goldstone is saying now hasn’t received nearly enough attention from the media in general or from the Globe specifically. By running Sultany’s rebuttal on the same page as Jacoby’s column, the Globe opens itself up to criticism by those who have long believed the Globe is guilty of anti-Israeli bias.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Globe’s opinion pages beef up

Joshua Green

A year ago, the biggest question at the Boston Globe was whether the New York Times Co. was serious about shutting it down if it couldn’t squeeze out $20 million in union concessions.

These days, the story is considerably more pleasant. Though no one thinks the Globe is entirely out of the woods (there is, after all, a revolution under way), the paper keeps expanding in modest but useful ways.

The latest initiative is coming tomorrow: a weekly column on the op-ed page by the Atlantic’s fine political writer, Joshua Green, who, according to Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos, will offer a Washington perspective from a non-ideological perspective.

“He’s a pure reporter and analyst,” Canellos says. “And I think that for somebody looking at the changing landscape of Washington these days, this is a happy meeting of a writer and subject, because it’s a fascinating time.”

This coming Sunday will mark a significant expansion of the opinion pages. For years, the Globe has published a third opinion page, reserved for letters, every other week. Now the paper will publish three and four pages on an alternating schedule.

Newish op-ed columnists Joanna Weiss and Lawrence Harmon will join standbys Joan Vennochi and Jeff Jacoby. Harmon, the Globe’s chief editorial writer on city issues, will continue to write his column once a week. Weiss will now write twice weekly, picking up Harmon’s Tuesday slot.

On weeks when there are four opinion pages, Canellos says, the extra space will be used for features such as “visual op-eds” by cartoonist Dan Wasserman and longer essays by columnist James Carroll and other writers.

Finally, Canellos says that a somewhat nebulous new online feature called “The Angle” will be beefed up with some definition and some original content as the result of a new partnership with “Radio Boston,” which WBUR (90.9 FM) is expanding from a weekly to a daily program next week.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The so-called free market for food

Jeff Jacoby writes in today’s Boston Globe:

[N]ot even Ted Kennedy would have suggested that Washington nationalize US food production or overhaul the clothing industry. It is precisely because food and clothing are seen as commodities, because we do leave their availability to the market, that they can be had in such abundance and diversity.

From the New York Times, Nov. 9, 2005:

Even as the Bush administration tries to persuade member nations of the World Trade Organization that it is serious about trimming agricultural subsidies, federal spending on farm payments is closing in on the record of $22.9 billion set in 2000, when the Asian financial crisis caused American exports to fall and crop prices to sink, pushing the Midwest farm belt into recession.

If export sales stay weak, this year’s subsidies could hit a new record. Just last week the United States Agriculture Department raised its projection of payments to farmers by $1.3 billion, to $22.7 billion. In 2004, the subsidies were only $13.3 billion.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” writing in the Times on Sept. 9, 2009:

[F]ood system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

If Jacoby had wanted to argue against government health-care reform, he could have done it quite easily by using the food industry as his prime example. As Pollan and others have shown, we are awash in a sea of cheap, federally subsidized corn that has been transformed into oceans of sweet soda, unhealthy beef (corn is toxic to cattle) and a host of other dubious products that barely deserve to be called food.

Do we want the government to do to health care what it’s done to the food supply? It’s not an argument I would make. But Jacoby could have made it, and he’d have produced a much more valid column if he had.

A must-read Q&A

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has a fascinating interview with Egyptian scholar and dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who talks about the prospects for reform in an authoritarian system — and whether Arab governments truly want a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Jeff Jacoby doesn’t listen to Rush, either

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, in the course of thrashing Colin Powell, cites a 16-year-old William Raspberry column in which Raspberry apologized for accusing Rush Limbaugh of bigotry without having listened to him for more than a few minutes in bits and pieces.

Powell, who’s been critical of Limbaugh, must be similarly ignorant, according to Jacoby.

But wait. Has Jacoby seen the “Top 10 Racist Limbaugh Quotes”? [Link now fixed.] Two of them, at least, have been verified by Snopes, the gold standard for such things:

  • “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”
  • “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” [Spoken to an African-American woman who’d called.]

Two of the most incendiary quotes on the list — a paean to James Earl Ray, who assassinated the Rev. Martin Luther King, and a comment that the streets were “safer after dark” during slavery — appear to come from a book by Jack Huberman called “101 People Who Are REALLY Screwing America (and Bernard Goldberg is Only #73).”

I do not know the provenance of those quotes, and Wikiquote says they are in dispute because Huberman did not provide dates. So we’ll leave those in the interesting-if-true category.

On the other hand, there is no question that Limbaugh lost his gig as a football analyst after he made racially insensitive remarks about Donovan McNabb, a quarterback who’s black. And he’s had great fun with a parody song called “Barack the Magic Negro,” not least because he gets to claim, over and over, that his critics don’t get it and he’s not really racist.

William Raspberry retired in 2005. But he might want to consider his 1993 apology to Limbaugh. The evidence is clear that Raspberry got it right the first time.