In the past two months, the world has watched helplessly as the Islamic State released four videos of foreign captives being beheaded in Syria. Much has been said about what we can learn about evil from these videos. Not enough has been said about what we can learn about good.
The first video, of James Foley’s beheading, appeared Aug. 19. The images were ubiquitous in newspapers and on social media. Foley, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, was on his knees. A masked man held a knife to Foley’s throat. On recordings, we heard the executioner speak in a British accent, warning that Steven Sotloff, an American freelance journalist, would be next.
More videos followed. Sotloff was murdered in September. Then David Haines, followed by Alan Henning. Though the Islamic State had long been carrying out public executions, the Internet expanded “public” to a horrifying new dimension. Now a single video could terrify millions, and there was evidence the tactic was working: In a recent poll, 94 percent of Americans said that they had heard about the beheadings.
Only with the latest video, showing the death of Henning and the appearance of the 26-year-old American aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig as the next potential victim, did I realize the message of terror was backfiring. These videos weren’t making me afraid. They were giving me hope.
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The evil, so potent in the first video, remained static. With each new version, we learned nothing new about it. The man, now known to the world as “Jihadi John,” looked the same. The orange jumpsuit remained the same, as did the knife, the method of killing, the desert. That English accent designed to chill us.
But each time the good was different. We learned that Foley, in addition to being a journalist, was a devout Catholic who once taught inner-city kids. In Syria, he raised money to buy an ambulance for a hospital. His kindness did not stop while he was in captivity, where he shared blankets and food rations. In a letter home, he urged his grandmother to take her medicine.
We met Sotloff and read his article on desperate civilians in Aleppo who could not afford bread or fuel. It opened with a 12-year-old boy chopping wood for his family, an incident Sotloff captured because he had learned to speak the boy’s native language — Arabic. Testimonies emerged that Sotloff, who was Jewish and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, fasted on Yom Kippur in captivity.
With Haines, we met a humanitarian worker supplying tents and food to refugees. With Henning, we were introduced to a British taxi driver who took unpaid leave to deliver aid with his Muslim friends. Many media outlets stopped showing images from the videos. Instead, we saw Henning’s smiling faceas he held a Syrian child in his arms.
So when Kassig — known as Peter to his friends — appeared as next in line to die, we were not surprised to learn that he is remarkable. A former Army Ranger, he founded his aid organization on a shoestring budget, smuggling supplies across the Syrian border. He used his first-aid training to teach Syrians to heal wounds. He wrote to his parents from captivity: “If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”
We have always known that such heroes exist: We just don’t often find them in the news. They are journalists who bear witness to suffering, even as they fall under shelling. They are aid workers who deliver flour across checkpoints. They join other unknown heroes — parents trying to feed their kids in wartime, teachers trying to hold classes. They stop at nothing: If there is no ambulance, they buy one; no doctor, they train one; no voice, they become one. They are hope, in places where we have long since ceased to believe hope is possible.
We have no power over whether the Islamic State will release more videos. But we can control what we choose to learn from them. Let them be reminders not of how much evil is in the world but of how much good.
Stephanie Saldaña is the author of “The Bread of Angels,” a memoir about her time living in Syria. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at Al-Quds Bard College.
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