I did not view the nudie pics of Jennifer Lawrence online. I claim no moral superiority in relation to my digital abstinence. It was a busy week. It also helps when browsing the Web to have a general disdain for celebrity news — and a daughter in her early 20s.
I did view Ray Rice’s career-ending assault on the woman he later married. I viewed it not by choice but by inevitable accident, as I wandered over to see what news event had brought commerce to a halt and drawn the crowd in a hotel lobby to the corner where the television hung suspended from the ceiling. My first thought when I saw the mouths gaping was, “Oh, no, not another beheading,” and hence, I am not proud to admit, I experienced a certain sense of relief at the news that Rice’s wife, whom I already knew had been assaulted, was merely unconscious, and not headless.
Which brings us to the tragic story of James Foley, a New Englander who seems to have gone to Syria in search of the truth and whose execution by savages pushes us towards a deeper involvement in the war that the president had so long sought to avoid.
Did you watch the Foley beheading video? How many of your friends did?
Charles Arthur, of the Guardian, attempted to provide an estimate of the number of people who viewed the Foley beheading video and the Jennifer Lawrence images.
With the disclaimer that no one can know the precise numbers, Arthur deduces by tracing Google searches for the video that at least 12 million of us checked the grisly ISIS beheading on Aug. 20, the day after the murderers released it. By comparison, 7 million souls could not resist the urge to confirm what we suspected: When movie stars remove their clothing, they are naked. Apparently, if rumors of a JLaw sex tape leak are accurate, we might soon discover, shockingly, that they also enjoy orgasms.
This disparity in online views for the two events could indicate that sexual voyeurism has slipped to second place behind grisly violence in the public imagination, or it could simply be the case that the market for superstar skin has become saturated as of late. It is also true that while you can create your own sex tape, finding a partner for a beheading video is a trickier proposition.
I have no way of knowing if President Barack Obama took in any of the titillating visual displays of recent weeks, but if you watched his televised address Wednesday, Sept. 10, it seemed obvious that his pollsters knew that far too many of us had seen the televised beheadings. While the president in his cool mode tried to make a case for why ISIL represents a threat to our national security, it was the heat generated by the filmed beheadings that clearly drove the argument for a dangerous entanglement in the Syrian civil war.
The image drives the policy. And that is unfortunate. Once those videos went viral, adults who should know better began to conjure horror stories of ISIS terrorists crossing the Mexican border, and the demands to “do something” grew louder.
In the president’s defense, he has showed restraint on the decapitation front; Mexican drug lords have carried out as many as 400 beheadings in recent years without provoking so much as a single drone attack on Sinaloa.
But he has taken the outrageous actions of a group whose most sophisticated weapon involves a serrated knife and a video camera and responded as if they represent a threat to our survival, which they do not. What is forgotten as we shudder with horror is that the most important strategic goal when dealing with terrorists is to ensure that they do not get their hands on nuclear or chemical weapons. This is the rare point of strategic continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations.
And long after ISIS has been forgotten, that will still be the goal that matters. In that perspective, Obama’s Syria policy has actually achieved success (most of Assad’s chemical stockpiles have been secured or removed). Obama’s policy toward Iran, whether or not you agree with tactics, continues to move toward dismantling its nuclear capability.
We should mourn the lives of James Foley, and Stephen Sotloff, and the many Iraqis and Syrians whose names we will never know. But to overreact to their loss does not make any of us safer. We must keep our heads.