‘When your enemy is in the process of destroying himself,” Napoleon famously advised, “stay out of his way.” That wisdom ought to be applied to the media campaign being waged by the Islamic State, which has thought it good marketing to tighten its hold on parts of Syria and Iraq by advertising its most distressing misdeeds.
Take, for example, the photograph (it’s graphic) published on the front page of Monday’s Australian showing a seven-year-old boy hoisting by the hair a severed head. The now-viral photo reportedly originated on the Twitter feed of the boy’s father, Khaled Sharrouf, a Sydney jihadist fighting with the Islamic State, with the caption, “Thats [sic] my boy!” The head belonged to a Syrian soldier; it now belongs to the citizens of Raqqa in north-central Syria where the Islamic State displays dead Syrian soldiers on the sidewalks, perching their heads atop their bodies or mounting them on poles.
Whatever father/son bonding opportunities they may provide, the Islamic State’s tactics — mass execution, beheading, crucifixion (graphic content at all three) — are being practiced with an alarming enthusiasm. How do we know? Because the jihadists themselves post the evidence: cell-phone videos and Twitter pics uploaded by the Islamic State with the same sort of abandon with which tourists photograph their desserts — not Matthew Brady daguerreotypes or Eddie Adams Pulitzer-winning frames, not even “photojournalism”: snapshot propaganda.
The precedent is not Robert Capa; it’s 3-Babiez. Albeit with variations, the Islamic State is perfecting what might be called the “terror selfie”: a quick click that, like Mexican-cartel propaganda, aims to frighten the audience, but also to flatter the photographer. Flaunting unlikely threats (“We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House”) and trophies (heads and torsos), the Islamic State’s self-made media is its way of flashing its gang signs over the bodies of its victims.
The chest-thumping vanity of the jihadists’ propaganda does not detract from its horrors. But recognizing exactly what these photographs are should make it obvious what to do with the gruesome images: Run them. The images occasioned by wartime often entail sticky questions of justice and patriotism and politics. Adams’s photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner, for example, devastated the Vietnam War cause, a possibility New York Times editors recognized when they ran the picture (to offset its effect, they printed it beside a photograph of a child killed by the Viet Cong; the latter picture is, alas, long forgotten).
Jihadists’ photographs and videos raise no such questions. This is not journalistic material created by embedded reporters; editorial boards do not have to sift through motives. These radicals are themselves choosing to publicize their vilest deeds. Media outlets should give them prime place — not because it serves the Islamic State’s purposes (though they may think it does), but because it serves ours. Crucified men, beheaded children — the evidence of evil is incontestable.
Academics and Internet trolls can argue that ISIS jihadists are products of American interference in the Middle East, the radicalized fringe of postcolonial oppression, etc., but the image of a father publicly celebrating his child lifting up a severed head makes the barbarism unmistakable. These are bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. We might disagree about how best to fight this enemy, but publishing the Islamic State’s laudatory photographs of horrifying exploits will make it impossible to disagree that this is an enemy worth fighting.
At present, while these pictures are not difficult to find, one does have to go looking for them. Both major and minor outlets regularly decline to publish them, and those that do (the U.K.’s Daily Mail, for instance) print them heavily redacted or pixelated. CNN has posted a few unmodified images, and Vice News’s five-part film on ISIS does not shield viewers from the carnage. A blog here and there has published uncensored images (again, graphic content). But these exceptions prove the rule.
There is, of course, a question of taste — but taste ought not to be a barrier to exposing the truth of a situation, particularly a truth as obvious as this. Family-friendly news outlets that choose not to publish graphic content themselves ought to link (with suitable warnings) to those that do. The Islamic State’s cause is only aided by those who decline to expose its worst abuses, even for good reasons.
For his American listeners who would never find themselves in Germany, Edward R. Murrow, in a famous radio broadcast, described to them what he had witnessed on a post-liberation visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. “If I have offended you by this rather mild account of Buchenwald,” he added at the end, “I am not in the least sorry.”
For exposing today’s would-be genocidaires, we ought not to be sorry, either.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.