Execution blurs line between news and propaganda

Substitute “killed” or “murdered” or “executed” for beheaded in this headline and does it have the same impact?

Probably not. We’re generally more desensitized to the atrocities of war and terrorism and the Islamic extremists know that. Beheading carries its own terror. So should we be complicit in furthering their terror? Or is there an ethical obligation to do so by virtue of “the right to know?”

“It (beheading) functions as recruitment for young people,” Dawn Perlmutter, the director of the Symbol Intelligence Group, told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel last week. “It definitely functions as psychological warfare. And obviously, the way that so many cities have fallen so quickly in Iraq demonstrates that beheadings are going to cow the citizenry into doing whatever you want. It’s very effective with the cartels. Journalists in Mexico – there’s been several journalists who have been beheaded. And they will upload those images to threaten anybody else who plans on chatting about what they’re doing.”

As a recruitment tool, it’s particularly appealing to people who play video games, Perlmutter claims, because they’ve been desensitized to beheadings. Well, swell, then.

“The image of unstoppable, implacable power animates all of its messaging,” the New York Times’ Scott Shane and Ben Hubbard reported this week. It’s command of drama and media is an effective recruiting tool for westerners.

“They are very adept at targeting a young audience,” said John G. Horgan, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell who has long studied terrorism. “There’s an urgency: ‘Be part of something that’s bigger than yourself and be part of it now.’ ” Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics and the author of “The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global,” said ISIS had so far consistently focused on what militants call “the near enemy” — leaders of Muslim countries like Bashar al-Assad of Syria — and not “the far enemy” of the United States and Europe.

What choice does the media have in reporting events while not furthering a cause? Not much of one. Unlike Al Jazeera, the Star Tribune story ran a photo of the execution video.

Some media have already put the cone of silence on any reporting of hostages. That only helps ISIS, Daily Beast claims today.

Media blackouts have been the subject for months of an acrimonious debate within the press corps covering the Mideast. Blackouts on the abduction of reporters were routinely called for during the Iraq war. Security consultants said blackouts would help to keep captors’ ransom demands low. The argument also went that the lack of publicity would dissuade would-be hostage-takers from bothering to grab reporters.

The security consultants were wrong: Blackouts have not stopped the kidnappings, and ransom demands have climbed.

Robert Young Pelton, author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, believes when it comes to Americans held captive, news blackouts are more about the nervousness of corporate employers and their insurers who are often key in persuading families of those seized to ask the media to refrain from reporting.

“No one can show blackouts help protect captives,” he says. “Media blackouts are also designed to mitigate corporate risk” and are urged by kidnap insurance professionals who come from a culture of secrecy.

“We will never prevail over an enemy as barbaric and totalitarian as the Islamic State if we avert our gaze from what it does to those it vanquishes,” Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes. “There are times when it is necessary to see the evil, not just to read or hear about it.”

“True,” counters the Toronto Sun’s Michele Mandel today, “but not this time. Here, mere words are more than enough. The stark horror of these madmen can be conveyed in a simple sentence: black-hooded Islamic State militant slices off the head of an innocent American journalist. No image is necessary when your imagination can, unfortunately, conjure the rest.”

Related: Ready, Aim, Fire. Not Fire, Ready, Aim. (NY Times).