August 25, 2014 | The National Post
James Foley is a Martyr For a Civilization That Has Renounced Martyrdom
A decade from now, will anyone remember the name James Foley?
We should. Everyone should. The 40-year-old American freelance journalist was doing something brave when he was kidnapped in 2012 — reporting firsthand on Syria’s civil war. This week, he was beheaded on camera by ISIS jihadis in Iraq.
Even by the standards of war correspondents, Foley was unusually courageous: He went to Iraq after enduring a deadly encounter in Libya, during which he witnessed a fellow journalist, Anton Hammerl, being shot and killed by pro-Gaddafi troops. Foley himself was beaten, captured and imprisoned. After he got out, he dusted himself off and went off to the next war, his last.
Foley is more than just another casualty in the ongoing war against terrorism and militant Islam. His goal was to learn the truth and report it, to provide the rest of us with knowledge to inform our understanding of the Middle East. If Western rationalism were a religious creed, James Foley would be one of its true martyrs — along with Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was slaughtered in similarly gruesome fashion 12 years ago, after being made to declare, “My name is Daniel Pearl. I am an American Jew.”
But the West no longer has a culture of martyrdom. We don’t put the faces of men such as Foley and Pearl on coins or posters — as they do with their martyrs in Gaza and the West Bank (most notably Mohammed al-Dura, even though the 12-year-old boy may well have been shot by Palestinians, not Israeli soldiers). We don’t wail over coffins or fire guns in the air or burn effigies. The most common response is of the type evinced by Barack Obama this week, upon hearing the news of Foley’s deal: A grim denunciation of the killers’ incomprehensibly nihilistic creed (ISIS “has no ideology of value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt”) along with grim determination to remain “vigilant” and “relentless” in the face of violent extremism.
As for Foley’s own parents, they addressed the media at a sad and subdued meeting with reporters outside their home in New Hampshire. “He was as much a humanitarian as a journalist,” his father said.” His mother added: “He just felt that the world had to know … the world had to know about the evil.” When the press conference was over, everyone left. The parents didn’t pass out sweets. And no one congratulated them on their son’s ascension to martyrs’ heaven with all its virgins.
After Daniel Pearl died, his parents formed a foundation in his name to promote “the principles that shaped Danny’s work and character. These principles include uncompromised objectivity and integrity; insightful and unconventional perspective; tolerance and respect for people of all cultures; unshaken belief in the effectiveness of education and communication; and the love of music, humor, and friendship.” That is a noble project: Indeed, it epitomizes our desperately felt psychic need, as Western liberal rationalists, to forge something positive and loving out of senseless death. But this response to death also shows the massive gulf that exists between our world and the Hamas/ISIS worldview, which sees the destruction of life as a gateway to cosmic, paradisiacal glory for both the deceased and his kin.
We Westerners had a cult of martyrdom once, until it was smothered in the trenches of Europe. Before World War I — which began a century ago this month — death in battle could be idealized as a heroic, even spiritual, experience.
Indeed, it was the cult of martyrdom that propelled Europe into World War I in the first place. In France, in particular, the most fervent patriots bound the war effort with a sentimental veneration of Joan of Arc. Maurice Barrès, a preeminent intellectual of his generation, declared in August, 1914, “Blood has not yet rained upon our nation and war has already made us … feel its regenerative powers. It is a resurrection [of our race].”
Even when the shooting began, Barrès would enthuse that “it is an immense symphony which, strangely, inspires less horror of its abominations than respect and admiration for these men who know how to die. It seems as if a mystery were taking place beneath our very eyes.” As Frederick Brown writes in his new book, The Embrace of Unreason: France, 1914-1940, the battlefield was expected to forge a new France: “Those who died would die as martyrs to the cause of national rebirth.”
No one in the West thinks this way anymore. The industrial slaughter of the Western front destroyed such Christian schoolboy daydreams. There was no martyr’s glory in trench foot, or mustard gas, or in the decomposition of a machine-gun-riddled body on a farmer’s field. Joan of Arc went from role model to historical fable.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, it’s still 1914, and the Arab world’s “immense symphony” of martyrdom is still in overture. Let’s take care to remember James Foley, whose only mission was to record its hideous melody.