Should I Watch the James Foley Beheading Video?

“Watch the video,” The Five’s Greg Gutfeld tells the American public, in reference to ISIS’ video of the beheading of American journalist James Foley. For Gutfeld, watching the video is a justified act because it can arouse a better understanding of the terror ISIS pledges against our country.

I can’t help but wonder, however, as an American with no National Security credentials, if watching a barbarous assassination of an innocuous life is the best way to confirm ISIS’ unbridled terrorism. Isn’t it enough to trust my officials and know that it happened? Or do I really need to watch a terrorist decapitate a fellow American, one whom I’ve never met, but one whose identity of which I’m aware, in order to understand ISIS’ barbarity? Is it the only way to come to grips with the severity of the situation?

One thing is sure: Such a video can never be unseen.

I once read a blog on the subject of pornography and sex slavery that I think provides insight into what we might be doing when we watch a video like the James Foley beheading. The blog’s title was something along the lines of, “Want to stop sex trafficking? Stop watching porn.” The thrust of the blog was that pornographers vigorously record every click one makes on their websites. It also detailed the fact that most pornographic videos include women forced against their wills (sex slaves), and so the idea is that when you watch these inappropriate videos, you support sex trafficking.

I tend to wonder if ISIS has the same mentality for their James Foley video. I wonder what their videographers think when they see countless clicks from American states. And I wonder what the opposite would mean. Between having thousands of hits versus not having any hits, I wonder which scenario would encourage them to consider making another video.

This of course isn’t to say that not watching the video would solve the problem, only to say that watching the video might embolden it.

The truth is, I’m not sure the American public should have to, as Greg says, “watch the video” to understand that ISIS is a barbaric organization thirsty for American blood. Is it unreasonable to say that the act should be reserved for our National Security officials? These individuals can verify the legitimacy of the video and report that information to the public and our governing officials. Isn’t this why these security organizations exist?

Watching these kinds of videos might counteract why we elect these kinds of officials at all.

As much as I think about it, I don’t know what advantage my watching of the video would accomplish. I can only think of disadvantages. I think of Foley’s mom and dad, who have to go to bed at night knowing that a video of their son’s brutal death is floating, like a child’s lost balloon, in the skies of the internet. I think of Foley’s final legacy, where he is forced to repeat antiAmerican propaganda at the hands of his murderers. And I think of how clicking “play” in the safety of my living room might be interpreted in the treacherous deserts of Iraq.

I know there are many who argue that watching the video can, as Greg says, help us understand the lethal brutality of ISIS, I’m just wondering how it might be viewed from the other side.

After originally posting this on my personal blog, I had a host of questions asked and decided to write a follow up blog:

Earlier today I wrote a blog entitled, “Should I Watch the James Foley Beheading Video?” It was a question many people were asking, which is evidenced by the dialogue I received via social networks and private messages, as well as the traffic that reached the post from Google searches looking for the actual video.

The blog wasn’t written to necessarily argue against watching the video (although I do make an appeal to dissuade it), but to offer what I hoped were thoughtful questions on what watching the video might encourage, namely ISIS’ motivation to make another video of the same nature. I have personally opted not to watch the video, for the reasons of respect to the family, the idea that the still images and reports were enough for me, and that doing so might encourage ISIS to make another video.

With all of this said, some important questions were asked concerning what we as the American public should view or not view when it comes to similar situations. References to the 9/11 attacks and the Holocaust were the best examples, but I’m also thinking of things like the Boston Bombing, the Malaysian airplane that was shot down in Ukraine, or even the fatal Nascar accident that took the life of Kevin Ward, Jr. The latter example isn’t a terrorist attack, but some of the same questions can be asked concerning the video.

In light of these questions, I wanted to articulate some of my thoughts concerning the subject:

First, I think it is important for me to say that I think showing the video of the Twin Towers collapsing was an important moment in the history of our country. While I understand that censoring the video today can be a respectful gesture to the families that lost loved ones in the attack (think if you lost a father, mother, spouse, or child and had to watch that scene over and over again every year on 9/11), I also fear that such censorship might keep much of our younger generation ignorant of the significance of that day.

Second, I think there is a big difference between watching concrete collapse, even if we know there are living people suffering in it, than explicitly watching a man burn to death in the building. To take this further, I think that showing said video with the man’s identity posted at the bottom of the screen begins to cross questionable lines. And if that man was forced to read a monologue that obviously goes against his beliefs while another man tortures him, I think even more lines would be crossed in the active participation of watching such a video.

Third, I think it’s important for Americans to be fully aware of the evil that resides in our world, and this means seeing things that we would otherwise not want to see. I have personally seen Holocaust images that I can never unsee, as well as other images and even videos that I can never unsee. Some of these have been beneficial in helping me pop the bubble I live in and secure a healthy understanding of the real evil in our world.

With all of this said, I think the main question that every person needs to ask before viewing an image or watching a video like the James Foley beheading is this:

“Why am I watching this?”

This is to say, what is your motivation for watching the video or observing the still image? In my original blog, I argued that we ought to be cautious with this particular video, because some believe that ISIS wants to use such videos to garner worldwide popularity. Thus, googling the video might only encourage their sinister minds to recreate the situation with another hostage. In this, we might actually be promoting the death of James Foley, which is the opposite of what any good American would want to do.

It’s important to know that this is not a blanket philosophy for these kinds of graphic situations. The images from the Boston Bombings, for example, came from American news outlets, not terrorists. I saw pictures that I will never forget, and these images spurred me to a better understanding of the evil residing in our world. The same is true for Holocaust images.

But with all of this said, I don’t think that I could bring myself to ever watch, if it were available, a video that explicitly showed a bomb exploding and disseminating a human being, especially if I knew the identify of the person. Nor could I bring myself to watch a video of a German explicitly torturing a Jewish person. And I don’t even know if I can really articulate why I couldn’t bring myself to do that and why I could, at the same time, view certain images. All I know is that lines can be crossed, and we ought to be be mindful of our motivations in viewing such content.

An interesting question I found myself asking after conversing with people on this subject today is the one posted in the title of this blog, which is, “If Jesus died today, and if his torture and crucifixion were posted on YouTube, would I watch it?”

My answer to that question is, “Yes.” This is because the motivation of watching the video would be to understand the totality of what he did for me, not because I was curious, or because I had some kind of fetish, or because I needed some kind of reminder about evil in the world. I have obviously never seen the footage of Jesus’ crucifixion, but reading the accounts has been more than enough to prompt me to do something with what I have been confronted with, which is an important part of the question of motivation. More importantly, Jesus’ death is in a category of its own. His death meant something that no other death can ever mean. He died in the stead of every single person that has ever lived. This means he died for you, for James Foley, and even for the ISIS terrorists. And for that reason alone, it would be a video that I would encourage every person to watch.

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

The only conclusion I can really come to with this whole discussion is that before we watch a video of an identified person’s brutal murder at the hands of terrorists, we ought to ask ourselves if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. That is, will the video personally aid you in your progression to fight evil or will you watch it and then go home and eat a sandwich. If it’s the latter, don’t watch it, because all you’re doing is contributing to the present evils in our world.


  1. says

    Great article, Jared! You nailed it with this question:

    “Why am I watching this?”

    A few thoughts.

    1) There is a market, albeit smaller than the one for pornography, for snuff videos. Apparently a segment of our fallen population gets their jollies by watching people brutally murdered. Let’s not go down that road in wanting to watch this video. I wonder that it wouldn’t be a gateway drug, except…

    2) This is mirrored in part in the blockbuster movie industry where bloody murders and murder scenes are now quite commonplace, even as the silver screen is in our living rooms. On some level, I suppose the impact is mitigated by the understanding that those images are entirely manufactured. No actors were actually killed in the filming. But we also must come to realize that many people watch these things with their toddlers at their feet and their infants at their breasts and children at that age don’t have the benefit of maturely being able to distinguish the reality of the images. Along with violent video games that many of our children involve themselves in only a couple of birthdays later, such violent images become normal and our outrage against them deadened.

    At this observation, one might ask what more we expect to see when a video is released of an actual event. Given the availability of video editing software, can we even trust that the images are real? All we need to be told is that it is and we are interested to see if Hollywood has gotten it right all along. So the line between fantasy and reality is blurred with our sinful lust for the knowledge of evil hanging in the balance. Sounds kind of like forbidden fruit.

    3) But there is a point at which the knowledge of evil is not sinful in and of itself. Many Americans eat meat from the grocery store without the understanding of the manner by which the creature whose meat they are eating met its end. I know this because I’ve heard the statements made by some who wonder why people would eat animals that were slaughtered instead of buying meat at the grocery store. Americans have a disconnect between their comfort and the reality of death. Many people around the world are in situations where they have no choice but to watch their loved ones slaughtered. The fact that we must investigate the choice we have whether or not to watch is a luxury that is often lost on us and contributes to our ignorance of the depth of sin.

  2. Christiane says

    there is such a thing as ‘desensitization’ which IS a danger to viewing evil in progress . . .

    so what happens in ‘desensitization’?
    well, every time you see evil in progress, it’s not going to be enough for you and you want to see something even MORE shocking or titillating . . . as your system ‘adjusts’ to the increasing violence, something in you changes and you begin to crave ‘more’ and ‘more’ stimulation of this kind

    in short, it takes MORE evil displayed to get the same reaction in you as before, so you seek out increasingly violent or purient ‘entertainment’ to get the same ‘thrill’

    at least that’s what happens for those who are broken already

    my advice is not to flirt with viewing evil in progress . . . if you do so, you are placing yourself at risk of becoming less humane not more humane

    ‘libera nos a malo’ . . . ‘deliver us from evil’ . . . this is not a meaningless prayer, and it is prayed for good reason daily by billions of people world-wide

    steer clear of that which changes you for the worse . . . respond to suffering in the world by acts of kindness, not by viewing it as ‘entertainment’ . . . both are ways of responding, but only one of these ways is ‘of Christ’ . . .

    do NOT watch what is evil being done, no . . . evil works differently in people who see it happening . . . there is no ‘passive’ watching without contamination . . . do not imperil your soul and your spirit

  3. Dave Miller says

    I’ve almost opened and watched the video several times, but held back.

    Very helpful thoughts, Jared. Thank you.

  4. says

    the question, Why am I watching this?, is pertinent. However, you will find a problem in accepting the claims of our government agencies without asking a similar question: How can I trust these agencies which have lied hitherto and might be lying now. Just consider the work by Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, where a late professor of International Relations at Georgetown Univ. with a Ph.D. from Harvard admitted that there was a conspiracy behind many of the events in the world (you will have to wade through some 12-1400 pages of dull reading for the most part – except where he admits the reality. And you might want to know that he was the adviser and mentor of Mr. Clinton, when the latter was a student there. He also recommended Clinton for the Rhodes scholarship. There are many other sources that could be mentioned. Even C.S. Lewis gets in on the matter. Just thought you might want to know what we face and must deal with in our responses.

  5. Adam G. in NC says

    Don’t do it. I watched the Nick Berg beheading years ago and it still bothers me.

  6. Carolyn J Vogel says

    I would like to see the video!!!!! I will judge. I want to know all about this isis this sick group of people. Thank You.

  7. says

    If I watch it and wish I hadn’t, I’ll never be able to unsee it. Never be able to take the images out of my mind.

    It’s an irreversible deal.

    If I don’t watch it, I don’t have to deal with it. And as long as the video is anywhere to be found, that IS a reversible deal.

    No thanks. Will not watch it. I can think of several things in me .. in my flesh … that it would awaken, that I’d rather let lie. Don’t wanna go there.


    p.s.: I believe it was my favorite Author who told us to think on things noble, good, etc. And that ain’t it.

  8. Lindalee Hulsey says

    I believe James Dwight Foley gave his life for us to see and witness and feel the suffering and the reality of the Devils Work. He was a living Christ desperate to give us the message of our sins. He knew the world was witnessing, he felt us, even though he was forced most likely with more inhumane torture then could be imagined then the beheafing. He wasprepared and made a choice. In his co-operation they spared him giving him a speedy deat
    We owe it to him and all those that give thier lives they can feel the power of Gods love through us anf are not foresaken and alone.

  9. Lydia says

    You know, this is one of those decisions that is highly personal. Each person coming to it with their own level of wisdom and discernment.

    There are, of course, those who will watch for nefarious reasons. And others who will simply become desensitized to evil.

    But then, I see the need for some to see real evil up close as did Eisenhower forcing the residents around Auschwitz to tour the place after its liberation. Perhaps those who are constantly claiming Islam is about peace?

    But I also think the video dishonors Mr. Foley, too. Even the picture of him before the brutal murder makes my heart weep for that man and his family. The terrorists want us to watch it so that is part of the equation, too. What about his family, though?

    • says

      “But I also think the video dishonors Mr. Foley, too. Even the picture of him before the brutal murder makes my heart weep for that man and his family. The terrorists want us to watch it so that is part of the equation, too. What about his family, though?”

      This essentially summarizes the blog.

  10. John Wylie says

    For the life of me, I cannot conceive what possible good could come from viewing the video. My own imagination is sufficient to know that it was horrible and brutal and shocking. Brothers, leave it alone, don’t do that to yourself.

  11. says

    Setting aside whether or not it is “good” to watch such videos… Isn’t it enough to know that ISIS *wants* us to watch it? Not sure I want to play their game.

    • says

      Chris: You certainly have a point in the matter of not playing their game. Their thought, at the very least, is to intimidate Americans with fear, but they really need to be afraid of us. Perhaps they would do well to remember what Admiral Yamamoto said after the Japanese had bombed pearl Harbor: “I fear all we have done is to waken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

      • Nate says

        Unfortunately, since then, the U.S. has never again utterly defeated an enemy to the point of an unconditional surrender. I don’t think the American people are unified enough in their resolve to do what it would take to bring an enemy to that point. That time may never come again because we are no longer an United States of America, but a Diversified States of America.

      • Chris Roberts says

        Granted, eventually making Japan afraid of us took a couple of nukes and tens to hundreds of thousands of dead civilians. At risk of angering those who think “we should just nuke the whole middle east,” I’m not willing to make them fear us through those means. Beyond that, not sure what more we can do than what we have tried – and what we’ve tried clearly doesn’t work.

        • Nate says

          Chris, your revisionist history is unbelievable, and unfortunately passes as today’s history lessons in the public school system. The Japanese, by the time of dropping the bombs were so defiant and scared of us that they would have risked far more civilians by placing them on the beaches for the invasion they were waiting for.

          Why, because they refused to surrender!

          Your understanding of history is exactly the attitude which proves my point that America no longer has the stomach to utterly defeat their foes. This is why we have been in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade with absolutely nothing to show for it.

          Granted, there is an argument to be made that we should have never gone there in the first place, but not so with the Japanese and WWII.

          • Chris Roberts says

            “defiant and scared of us”

            Maybe you need someone to help you understand these words… As for your “revisionist history” nonsense, whatEVer (said while snapping fingers back and forth). As for Iraq and Afghanistan, what would you have had us do? Mass executions? Brutalize the population? When people say things like “don’t have the stomach” for something, they usually mean so-and-so isn’t a brutal tyrant who will kill whomever while trying to accomplish goals. If that’s what you mean, I certainly hope the US “doesn’t have the stomach” for it. As it stood, when there were bad guys to kill, we killed them. When we could capture them, we captured them. That’s pretty much how WWII went, until the whole killing tens of thousands of civilians bit (and I so, so hope you don’t think that particular bit is historical revisionism – you do realize it happened, right?)

            So, O The Only Rightly Historically Informed One, what should we have done (other than perhaps not gone in)?

          • Nate says

            No Chris, when I say that we don’t have the stomach for it, I am speaking about the biblical fact that you don’t go to war unless you’re willing to defeat your enemy. All the U.S. has done since the end of WWII is look to stop the progression of their “supposed enemies.” Korea, Vietnam, 1st Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the list goes on and on.

            Personally I don’t think we should say we are “at war” and then not finish the job. ISIS is a direct result of our “trying to spread democracy.” Empire building has been the fall of every super-power throughout history. Our Founding Fathers wrote about this and, for the most part, stayed out of other’s issues.

            If you are so naive that you can’t understand that dropping the bomb(s) on Japan actually saved lives, I can’t help you. Over a million projected would have died had we invaded Japan. Furthermore, in any war (which shouldn’t be entered lightly) civilians die. It’s horrible, as war is, which is exactly why one shouldn’t start one they aren’t willing to finish.

            We have left Iraq, in particular, in chaos. Granted Hussein possibly wasn’t any better, but if you are going to invade and supposed conquer somebody and then you don’t stay when the fringe (ISIS) comes in to prey upon the innocent, we have not been operating in a just war framework (in my opinion). Which was my point. We operated in a just war framework in WWII, conquered and then helped rebuild Japan. Guess what, they are now an ally.

    • Dave Miller says

      Chris, you make an excellent point. If ISIS wants us to do it, it’s a pretty good argument AGAINST doing it.

      Of course, we still have to see this in the light of what honors and glorifies God!

  12. Jake Barker says

    The video may not be as gruesome as some fear. The following “expert” analysis states that it was a staged act with the actual killing off camera, unlike the Daniel Pearle beheading some years ago. I have not watched the vid and do not intend to. I have seen enough of mayhem like this to last a lifetime, just don’t care to see more of it.