THE BLOG
08/27/2014 03:36 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2014

Looking Terrorism in the Eye: What the 9/11 Museum Can Teach Us About the James Foley Video

James Foley was dead for mere hours before the internet started circulating his execution video; only hours after that, sites warned that viewing the video could be considered criminal activity.

No doubt, there is a long and worthy debate to be had about whether watching the video of Foley's death is a right that we have, but I'm more interested in a different question altogether. If we already know that an American journalist was put to death in a cruel and unjust way, what makes us want to watch the scene? (Certainly, it isn't for plot.) And, regardless of whether watching the video is a right that we have, is watching the video morally right?

Contenders on both sides of the debate have voiced their views online. According to RT, British celebs have taken up the cause urging people to stay away from the video, citing it as promoting ISIS's cause (the intent of the video, after all, is to spread fear) and as a poor way to remember Foley. Elsewhere, the argument has been made that, in respect to Foley and his family, his death should be kept private rather than spread across the worldwide web.

In a different corner of the internet, though, Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm.com, argues that watching Foley's death is actually a way to pay respect to Foley.

"For whatever it's worth, I think we owe it to Foley -- and others who risk their lives to report the news -- to watch the video, out of respect for their commitment," he writes.

It's one thing for Foley's loved ones to not watch the video of his death; they wouldn't want to see or remember him as tortured in his last hours of life. However, do the ethics change for those of us who never met Foley?

If we only know James Foley as a journalist who was killed by ISIS, does witnessing his death via video make him human to us in a way that he couldn't be otherwise? Does it engender him to his mission of spreading truth?

Such questions aren't unique to this tragedy. A hub focused on American deaths as a direct result of terrorism, Manhattan's 9/11 Museum evokes a similar ethical dissonance. Although they have different contexts, 9/11 and Foley's death are both terrorist acts that share a desire for publicity by the terrorists: 9/11 was in broad daylight in a highly visible space, Foley's death was videotaped and then distributed on the web. If we struggle with whether it is appropriate for us to watch Foley's death online, we would do well to consider that the curators of the 9/11 Museum have already had a strikingly similar debate on a much larger scale.

If Foley's death ranks as one of the deeply upsetting images of our time, then people jumping to their death from the Twin Towers can't rank too far behind. Unsurprisingly, there was ample discussion among the 9/11 Museum designers and curators about how to present such deaths to the public, or if it was appropriate to present them at all.

They decided unanimously that it was important to dedicate an exhibit to these 50-200 people (the exact number is unknown). The resulting exhibit, entitled "Trapped," is a series of photos in an alcove fully blocked by a wall; there is no way to accidentally catch a glimpse without purposefully choosing to step into the alcove and away from the rest of the museum. A notice posted outside the exhibit warns that it features "particularly disturbing" images.

But, if viewers are to wrestle with the ethical dilemma of watching humans fall to their death, the exhibit doesn't leave them alone to ponder it. On the wall above the shots, one onlooker's words give us a case for why seeing these deaths is morally okay: "They were ending their life without a choice, and to turn away from them would have been wrong."

Foley, too, ended his life without a choice. Perhaps, as Matthew Ingram claims, turning away is wrong. However, I think the 9/11 Museum's suggestion for how we choose to witness Foley's death and future taped terrorism deaths reaches beyond this quote. While the treatment of the "Trapped" exhibit is one way to honor the dead through their moments of death, other exhibits in the museum have set a perhaps better protocol. Other material, particularly that in which the victim can be identified, is consumed by the public with the permission of the victims' families. As the Times reminds us, voice recordings of Betty Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11, and Brad Fetchet, who died in the south tower, are both featured in the museum courtesy of their families. All personal artifacts and stories behind the photo memorials were provided by the victims' families, as well.

Indeed, there can be a gentle reverence in watching a death; we might owe such a respect to victims of terrorism. But, if the victim's loved ones prefer that we don't see, that seems to be the ultimate judgment call. If Foley's family speaks out accordingly, the answer will be for us to lend the video of his death a blind eye.