I woke up to the news of the ISIS beheading of an American, an American journalist, a freelance American journalist many of us have come to know at least through his mother's televised pleas for mercy for his life, as Steven J. Sotloff, 31-years-old. I tried to sleep again, as is the frequent custom in the middle of an Italian day, but different words were going over and over in my musings, to the tune of "Ideally a journalist..." which was part of the thought, "Ideally a journalist is loyal to the truth over anything else." Not to belittle the heartbreak of the death, either of James Foley or Steven Sotloff, on the strictly personal levels of life and love and family and friends, not at all. But this is to only mention the dependency we have on journalists brave enough to go into troubled lands, near or far away, and brave enough to tell the truth about things we need to know about.
This event comes the same week of a moving, on target and brief enough piece in the New Yorker, entitled, "Does it Help to Know History?" by Adam Gopnik (August 28, 2014). Aside from a skeptical look at the assumption that everything can be either learned or predicted, Gopnik adds what learning from history can do, and what its absence can do as well. He writes: "The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed". Reflecting on what and how we learn can't come a moment too early as we need our government to act aggressively or not against the radical Islamic State, known -- as just about all of us know by now -- as ISIS. Gopnik warns us indirectly that the word, the concept and the reality of ISIS is in fact the answer, the answer to..."The historical question: What could possibly be worse than Saddam Hussein?"
Part of learning from history becomes even harder when we have to consider controversial aspects of what is leading up to the events of today, so we don't have to be taken over by a presentism which can easily include a too casual lack of awareness about what the implications might be of our actions of today or tomorrow. We might want to evaluate the implications of invasion or the lack thereof, and of whatever other tools which might help the rest of the world in evaluating the rigidities and dangers to humanity of an institution like ISIS. That would mean that we evaluate, which would mean we have the courage to get as much information as possible.
A propos of "presentism", I remember when the present was our entry into Iraq. I remember asking people in my Long Island town what they thought about it, and the prevalent answer I received (not from good friends who were pretty much against the U.S. invasion) was, "Well, we have to do something". Is something a war??? And a very relevant question would seem to be: Wasn't it the job of journalists, journalists who were supposed to be questioning the reports given by the White House, to seek and provide us with information that might have led to our understanding of the facts that there were no weapons of mass destruction?
It has pained me over the last years to remember -- well -- when the New York Times and company, told the American people they were sorry for the lack of aggressive journalism during that time when the White House was warning they would be responsible for terrible harm to America if they did their actual job.
The job of good journalism, is of course, not just reporting facts but also putting them together with questions. One question is today as it was when the Iraq War was just starting: What will be the implications of our invasion, certainly any actions that involve the purposeful humiliation of detainees or civilians. The job is not only that of a journalist or of many journalists -- it can't be their job only. It's something our Government, and we as citizens need to cultivate -- the stepping back from the rage, from the desperation for revenge, from even the horror -- so we can evaluate our actions, and get our bearings. Most of us don't want to become as brutal as our worst enemy, and most of us do not want to incur drastic hostilities as the result of our actions. And yes we don't want to be "weak", most of us at least. Though at the same time we don't want to be foolishly or hysterically misguided.
I don't want to insult the memory or the lives of either James Foley or Steven Sotloff. And I don't tend to make it a habit to speak of honoring the fallen, even if they may be heroes. It seems, though, that not only might we consider the acute national -- and to some extent -- international outrage and terrible sadness at these deaths (and yes I am too aware that these aren't global sentiments), but we might consider the deep human commitment to bringing the truth home to us that they shared. I want to say we owe them, while we really also owe not only ourselves but generations for whom the present will be their history, our willingness to cultivate our own capacity to "handle the truth".
Ideally, journalists attempt to bring us the truth. And we will value their lives and contributions fully, as fully as we can, if we attempt to not only value their having lived, or even avenge their deaths. We will honor them also, if we honor their jobs, their commitment, their dedication to bringing us not only "the facts" but in essence the raw material with which we can hopefully make much much better decisions.