One of the highlights of my recent trip to Chicago for the Online News Association confab was seeing the announcement of a new award to permanently honor the memory of James Foley, the journalist who was taken hostage by Islamic militants in Syria and executed in a videotaped beheading earlier this year. I'm in awe of someone like Foley and his passion for wanting to inform and educate people about the world, fully aware that he was risking his life to do to so.
On Sunday, The New York Times spoke to other hostages released, escaped or rescued from the so-called Islamic State, to learn of their life in captivity and about what happened to Foley before he was killed. The treatment of the American hostage was even more brutal and barbaric than anyone could have imagined -- proof that those with alleged ambitions of a Muslim caliphate in the Middle East are really little more than two-bit murdering thugs and hoodlums. The Times reported:
The story of what happened in the Islamic State's underground network of prisons in Syria is one of excruciating suffering. Mr. Foley and his fellow hostages were routinely beaten and subjected to waterboarding. For months, they were starved and threatened with execution by one group of fighters, only to be handed off to another group that brought them sweets and contemplated freeing them. The prisoners banded together, playing games to pass the endless hours, but as conditions grew more desperate, they turned on one another. Some, including Mr. Foley, sought comfort in the faith of their captors, embracing Islam and taking Muslim names.
Their captivity coincided with the rise of the group that came to be known as the Islamic State out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war. It did not exist on the day Mr. Foley was abducted, but it slowly grew to become the most powerful and feared rebel movement in the region. By the second year of Mr. Foley's imprisonment, the group had amassed close to two dozen hostages and devised a strategy to trade them for cash.
A question....and a couple of observations. First of all, as the story makes clear, other nations pay ransom for hostages but the United States doesn't, although (unlike the ransom payers) America did try a military operation to rescue Foley. The argument against paying ransom is a sound one: That it simply leads to more hostage taking. But is this the right approach -- knowing that Foley could be alive today if we'd paid? I have to admit I'm torn on this one.
Also, as I'm sure some of you will amplify in the comments below, the story doesn't reflect particularly well on President Obama, and I'd have to agree. It's not that he wasn't on top of the situation -- he did order that failed rescue mission -- but his golf and general detachment were an unnecessary slap to the Foley family in their worst hour. I hope the president plays golf again....in 2017.
But the horrific treatment of Foley is also a realization of some of the worst fears of U.S. top military and others who are argued unsuccessfully that it would be counter-productive for America to waterboard and otherwise torture Islamic militants a decade ago -- not only because it would create new terrorists and harden the resolve of the ones that are out there, but because it would increase the chance that American troops and other citizens could be tortured in retaliation. In fact, our own experts say that abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been the No. 1 motivator to recruit new members of groups like ISIS.
We've made a lot of mistakes in fighting terrorism, but I still believe accelerating the cycle of violence -- and eroding America's moral authority -- with our acceptance of torture was probably the dumbest. Thanks, Dick Cheney, and I hope that Cheney and members of the media will think of this: As you think of the horrible last days of James Foley, don't you ever, ever again call the brutal, tortuous act of waterboarding "enhanced interrogation."