by Jonah Shepp
For the past two weeks, the gruesome death of James Foley has returned to my mind over and over again. Now that Steven Sotloff has met the same fate, I, like many other Americans of conscience, am now haunted by two ghosts. It is well established that journalists, even those of us who do not work in the field, can get PTSD from the horrors we read about and the images we see day in and day out. I didn’t go looking for the videos of these brutal murders, because I don’t need to see someone get his head sawn off from front to back to be chilled by the thought of such an agonizing death. I’ve seen enough as it is. And as long as this war and others drag on, I know there are more horrors to come.
The impulse to make martyrs of our dead leads us to ascribe more importance to some murders than others. Yet Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails. We feel for Foley and Sotloff in a way we do not feel for other victims of this compounded Syrian-Iraqi crisis because they look like us and speak our language, because many of us share their Irish and Jewish surnames, and because their grieving families remind us of our own in ways that ululating Iraqi widows don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that: in-group bias can’t be helped, and it doesn’t follow from this outpouring of grief that we do not care about the many others who have suffered so terribly in this war.
Still, as proponents of American leadership-by-war turn to these atrocities as casus belli for an engagement they already wanted, it bears remembering that the forgotten victims of this maelstrom of death are human, too, as Sotloff’s own reporting so eloquently brought out. The humane character of his approach to his job has come up in many of the eulogies written since yesterday. For example, Ishaan Tharoor highlights a story Sotloff wrote from the bread lines in Aleppo:
The piece was the product of a ten-day trip to Syria’s war-ravaged commercial capital at a time when Syria’s “moderate” rebels still appeared to lead the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was published on Christmas Eve. In an e-mail sent to a Time editor alongside a link to the Foreign Policy article, Sotloff wrote that the “situation is nothing like the media dispatches from the West depict it,” alluding to the darker forces shaping the rebellion as well as the revolutionary fatigue of Aleppo’s beleaguered populace. “We are people not cattle,” an Aleppo resident told Sotloff, as the pair watched fights break out in a long line for rations of pita bread. “But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us.”
Sotloff, and Foley too, went to Libya, Syria, and other dangerous locales not to cheer for more war or to agitate against it, and not to propagandize for any cause, but rather to bear honest and clear-eyed witness to the human tragedy unfolding beyond the abstracting lenses of policy and strategy through which politicians, elites, experts, the media and by extension the public, often view these “foreign” wars.
The best way to remember Steven Sotloff, then, is not only to remember Steven Sotloff.