This is a classic illustration of how little our response to events – at both a personal and a global level – is guided by careful thought and how much it can be distorted by our emotions and gut reactions.
Judging by the prevailing response to this story, what IS did to James Foley is so far beyond the pale that it’s scarcely possible to imagine anything worse. The very thought of having your throat and neck sliced through evokes in all of us a visceral reaction that makes it seem one of the worst possible ways to die. Hence the call by General Allen and many others that President Obama must “wipe out” ISIS, and the unprecedented moves to eliminate the video from the internet, and the warning by the UK police that even watching it would be prosecuted as terrorism.
How bizarre – the idea that simply watching a video – without any further action – could constitute “terrorism”! That shows how little meaning now attaches to the word, other than “really bad thing”.
But apart from the fact that having your throat cut seems so creepy, why is decapitating someone so much more terrible than killing him by other means? It’s probably fair to say that Foley suffered no more than 10 seconds, perhaps less, before losing consciousness. How does that compare with being burned alive, or crushed under a ton of bricks, or blown to pieces by a bomb, or being shot and left on the ground to bleed to death? If you compare it with these things, then perhaps what happened to Foley really wasn’t such a bad way to die after all.
And yet those other acts have been repeated more than 2,000 times in Gaza without inspiring calls by General Allen and John Kerry to end it forthwith, and without having all signs of it being removed from the Internet, and without attracting threats of prosecution from Scotland Yard.
Why do you suppose that is? Is it because Foley was an American, and the method by which he was killed gives us goosebumps, while the other 2,000 victims were only Palestinians, and the burning/crushing/shooting is now so familiar that it fails to shock us anymore?
Is it also because Foley was killed by Those People, while the Palestinians are killed by “our” Israelis – who, after all, are only “defending themselves” against all those mothers and children who threaten Israel’s very existence from their living rooms and UN shelters?
I’ll tell you what: if I had my druthers, I’d go every time for the once-only loss of consciousness after 10 seconds in preference to being burnt alive or crushed under a pile of bricks, and not just once but over and over 2,000 times, accompanied by seeing the same done to your old parents and young children. Not to mention another 10,000 times when it fails to kill me or my family but only leaves us without eyes, arms or legs, or with permanent brain injury.
But that’s just me. I guess I just don’t have the right sense of proportion.