On the 31st of January, Twitter - our ubiquitous source of ironic millennial commentary and hashtagged video links - became flooded with the news of yet another beheading, this time purportedly of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto, at the hands of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). My personal Twitter feed was a constant flow of links to images and videos of this terrified man dressed in orange submitting to the cruelties and atrocities of ISIL. The presence of this style of brutality has become all too familiar on social media in recent months, snowballing in ever-growing numbers of links and page-hits since the "Arab Spring" movement reached Syria in 2011.
Kenji Goto was a journalist committed to telling the human stories from the world's most dangerous conflict zones. Since the early 1990s, he reported from war-torn places, focusing on the everyday people affected by larger conflicts. From the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone to the "AIDS villages" of Estonia and women's rights in Afghanistan, he was a voice for the powerless, offering a humanistic view of civilization that is too often forgotten in our extremist media portrayals. This past October, he also welcomed his second child, Rinko Jogo. Today, his family is left without him, another name to join the list of lives lost at the hands of ISIL; another family left with the terrifying final images of their loved one available on screens worldwide.
Certainly, journalism does not need yet another generic article condemning the acts of ISIL, and that is not what I intend to write. What we do need now are voices condemning the dissemination and circulation of ISIS-related videos and images, and a call to action to actively condemn ordinary people who promulgate this constant stream of violent imagery throughout social media. We must remember victims for their passionate work, for the families they've left behind, and for the struggle they represent in overcoming extremism and brutality in the world. The sensationalist "sharing" of their horrifying final moments needs to cease.
James Foley, the first (known) American citizen beheaded by ISIS, was a freelance journalist and video reporter. He began his work in the Middle East by organizing an effort to boost and rebuild Iraq's civil service, before becoming an embedded journalist in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He was abducted on November 22, 2012 in Syria and the video of his beheading made the internet rounds in August 2014, prominently featuring the media-monikered "Jihadi John", a criminal revealing only his eyes and speaking with British accent of the crime he was committing. Produced and distributed by an ISIL media outlet, it was specifically aimed toward non-Arabic speaking viewers. A web search for Mr. Foley produces a long list of links to this specially-produced video, making it Foley's most prominent video available to the public - an insult to his life's work as a journalist.
Other victims of ISIS beheadings have suffered the same fate of legacy. We must commit to changing this voyeuristic obsession with the extreme final moments of lives that should be remembered for the positive accomplishments and contributions that were their passion. We must remember David Haines, the British aid worker praised by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as "a British hero", as a man who put himself in danger to help others, not as simply a British man captured and murdered by terrorists. Mr. Goto and Mr. Foley did not work their whole lives to be remembered as victims. Their work gave a platform to people who desperately needed to be seen and heard, and it is for this that they should be remembered.
These men left behind loved ones who have been through the anguish of their initial kidnapping, the uncertainty and inspirational hope of rescue, followed by the true horror of having the subsequent death viewable by anyone with an internet connection. Time cannot remove the mental and emotional scars of seeing a loved one brutally slain in cold blood. A relative of mine was killed in 2012 at the hands of rebels in Syria. Bloody photos of his body, widely spread on the internet, became an unbearably painful reminder that my family still takes great care to avoid. We prefer the memory of him as an activist who practiced freedom of speech to raise awareness about the Syrian conflict, with the optimistic (if not idealistic) view that, as a Palestinian in Syria, his host country would return to peace.
Junko Ishido, the 78-year old mother of Kenji Goto, responded to the senseless loss of her son by saying: "It is my only hope that we can carry on with Kenji's mission to save the children from war and poverty." In a video recording made in Syria, Goto looked into the camera and calmly left his newborn daughter with the following remarks: "No matter what happens to me, I will always love the people of Syria." We need to find a way for this peaceful message of love to be prominent over the violent videos of murder, not only for Goto's young daughter, but for all of the children who will look at this moment for guidance and understanding.
Lastly, as a more practical effect of our proliferation of ISIS violence throughout the web, we are complicit in marketing them, and we contribute to their effort by spreading their mission, aiding them in recruiting disturbed people from around the globe, and sensationalizing their power. All organizations must run on a budget, yet this budget has facets beyond finance - their budget of prominence is inflated by our own seemingly benign linking-and-sharing on social media. We line their pockets with exposure. We help them fill their coffers of fear, hatred, and disturbance throughout the international community. The presence of extreme acts in the purported name of Islam is a misrepresentation of an entire religion, and a dangerous disservice to innocent Muslim people everywhere, and the rise of Islamophobia only contributes more violence. A recent report from Tell MAMA, an organization that tracks anti-Muslim violence, lists 15 attacks against Muslims since the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. The marketing of violence guarantees its continued success. This is not about suppressing the truth or censoring the internet; it is about focusing our energy and criticism towards affecting change - discovering the intricacies of how ISIS is financed, finding their connections worldwide, pinpointing ISIS sympathizers and supporters, and bringing these people to justice.
The solution to end this insane violence is not to circulate gruesome imagery of beheadings and violence. We must return to the human element that all these brave journalists so passionately tried to shed light on. As Ms. Ishido said of her son Kenji Goto, "Kenji has left us on a journey." We must honor his journey and legacy by adjusting our own.