Originally published on September 10, 2014 at China.org.cn.
I was in class in middle school when there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that airplanes had struck the World Trade Center towers in New York. The principal used delicate language when addressing the students, but I knew it was an attack. Commercial airline pilots don’t hit skyscrapers by accident. The rest of the day was surreal. Rumors circulated that a hijacked plane was heading towards my hometown, Cleveland, Ohio, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Even after watching the images on TV when I got home from school, the magnitude of the attacks was hard to comprehend.
It was like life stood still for the next week. All news was 9/11 all the time. The National Football League and Major League Baseball canceled all sporting events that week. I went to the Cleveland Browns game the next weekend. I remember the patriotic songs they played all throughout the game. “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free…” Lee Greenwood’s song became familiar at sporting events and was inserted into the seventh inning stretch at baseball games. Using the restroom, I could hear the guy next to me saying we were going to get bin Laden.
If seeing 3,000 of our fellow countrymen murdered in broad daylight and landmarks of New York City’s skyline disappeared from the sky wasn’t enough, the rest of the year featured anthrax letters and an attempted shoe bombing by Richard Reid. “Panic” might not be the right word — the threat posed by international terrorist organizations was real — but there were major changes made to people’s lives that seem unnecessary in today’s light. A school field trip to Washington, DC was canceled. Many Americans weren’t traveling anywhere, let alone to the capital.
Now, thirteen years after [now fifteen], the weight of the attacks has been fading for Americans. Much of the public is tired after years of war and tightened security procedures at airports. Yet the attacks left a lasting legacy on American politics and a feeling that will not soon leave. If we needed a reminder that radical theocratic terrorism remains a problem that can’t be ignored, ISIS provided it with their surge through Iraq and the murder of two American journalists and thousands of Syrians and Iraqis.
Militants that intentionally target journalists and take a twisted pleasure in broadcasting their beheadings to the world are the cruelest form of savages. Their attacks on journalists are attacks on humanity and civil society. James Foley and Steven Sotloff’s courage in reporting from the gates of hell is the kind of courage we need to combat this threat, whether applied to journalists, diplomats, politicians, or citizens going about their daily lives.
For any society to function properly, it needs to have journalists willing to put themselves on the line, going places where ordinary people wouldn’t dare go, and find out what’s happening. Foley and Sotloff went to the center of conflicts that were shaping the world in Libya and Syria. It is in part due to their efforts that we know about the weapons that were flowing to Syrian rebels in the aftermath of the Libya War and the extent to which al-Qaeda was getting involved in Syria.
Foley was captured in 2011 by Colonel Gaddafi’s forces and held for 44 days. His fellow photo journalist Anton Hammerl was killed. “I believe front line journalism is important; [without it] we can’t tell the world how bad it might be,” Foley said before he went to Syria.
That kind of attitude should inspire journalists. It inspires me. Of course, most of us won’t be able to live up to it — to risk our lives on the war front to report the truth. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support the ideal and celebrate those who do embody it. We should still pursue the highest virtues of journalism as far as we can.
At Time magazine’s website, Sotloff’s article from Sept. 23, 2012 details how Colonel Hamid Bilkhayr, who helped lead the fight against Gaddafi, was kidnapped by Islamist militants and nearly murdered because they said he was “not a Muslim.” (He wasn’t an extremist.) Now the terrorists of the Islamic State are inflicting genocide on those in Iraq who are literally not Muslims. Nine hundred Yazidis have been murdered so far, and tens of thousands have been forced into the mountains. Yazidi women are being sold into sex slavery. Shabaks, Assyrians, and Christians are also being targeted.
Sotloff himself was the grandson of Holocaust survivors. After the Holocaust, the world said, “Never again.” ISIS is recreating the horrors of genocide. Today, thirteen years after 9/11, we owe it to ourselves and those who came before us to stop them before they get much further.