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Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

This article originally appeared on on August 22, 2014.

By Deborah Douglas and Michele Weldon

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.

In less than two weeks, the violent deaths of two American sons—in wildly disparate and tragic circumstances across geography, time, race, age, and experience—have incited mourning, blame, and grief.

If the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, plunged us into a fugue state of confusion, anger, and fear, James Foley’s execution by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) militants sent us reeling in disbelief at the unhinged state of the world.

Now, the stories of these men are forever linked: Foley died trying to get the story straight, and Ferguson marches on to counter the narrative of being black and male in America. Brown’s funeral is slated for Monday; Foley will never have one.

Certainly, the details surrounding Brown’s and Foley’s lives and deaths are remarkably different. Still, an 18-year-old black man from Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed by a police officer in an American city, and a 40-year-old white professional journalist kidnapped and executed by Islamic terrorists on a sandy hilltop in Syria, are bonded irrevocably as brothers on a timeline of injustice.

Is it insensitive to compare these two deaths bridged by few concrete parallels? Is it wrong to call Brown’s death from six shots at close range by a police officer an execution—as Benjamin L. Crump, the Brown family’s lawyer, did—and liken it to the unfathomably barbaric decapitation of Foley? Perhaps.

But both were inhumane. The lives and deaths of Foley and Brown spark deep emotional reactions, urging millions of global citizens to call for sanity, freedom, accountability, and a renewal of belief in the sanctity of human life. Linking their stories is an attempt to conjure meaning from meaningless brutality.

Trust that the ISIS militants understand the power of narrative. In their quest to plunge that part of the world into their version of an Islamic caliphate, these militants need a powerful story to convince the world that they’re winning.

Believe those marching day after day in the St. Louis suburb might soon be gassed back behind closed doors. But they will never let die the story of who Brown was and how he was—an American, strolling freely with a friend, surely envisioning a future. These are some of the same freedoms—the open-air, walking-down-the-street freedoms—that those militants across time and space seek to erase.

NPR’s “On the Media” described ISIS’s storytelling efforts recently when host Brooke Gladstone debated the ethics of using curated, censored, and controlled photographic images from militant-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.

“Much of what we’ve seen of Islamic State comes filtered through a well-oiled media machine, which churns out its own images while keeping a death grip on the reporters who enter its territory and the journalism that emerges from it,” Gladstone said.

Desperate for some imagery, any kind of imagery, Gladstone described the ethical peril Western media outlets face serving up “approved” images that tell us something—anything—but mostly what Islamic militants want us to know: fear.

America itself is a story, held together by imagery and codified by law. What we tell ourselves about ourselves is how we keep this experiment going, and advance it.

Experience taught Ferguson protesters this, which is why they’re persistent in telling a counter-narrative that gets to unspoken truths many have been loath to hear. That truth must eventually include a full telling of what happened on August 9, in full transparency, without misdirection. We must reconcile how humans behave toward one another on a spectrum from civility to inhumanity.

Both deaths, days apart, drew reaction from President Barack Obama, who acknowledged separately the pain they caused families, communities, country, and the world.

At Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where collectively we have taught bright and earnest students like Foley, a graduate of the school, for more than 25 years, the community who knew him and of him, and respect his courage and legacy, is in shock and mourning. And though Brown was not in our geographic community, we feel he belonged to us—as our brother and neighbor.

Shortly after the death of her son, Brown, Lesley McSpadden said, “Violence needs to stop. … It is a distraction.” She called for purposeful peace. In the hours after her son’s murder, Diane Foley said, “We just pray that Jim’s death can bring our country together in a stronger way.”

In both of these stories, we collectively bear the scourge of impotency to have saved either man. And while coupling their tragedies is intended in no way to diminish the impact of each life and violent death, together they are emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.

The loss of each man to violence in a war zone—declared or implied—requires all of us to recommit to insistence that dehumanizing any person dehumanizes all of us.

Whether we pressed play on the video of Foley’s murder in Syria or found a way to rationalize the image of a young man lying dead and dishonored in an American street, if we are desensitized to either horror, we are accomplices in every immoral terror.

The accident of timing ties the narratives of Brown and Foley together, but it is the deliberate howl against both of their deaths that will unite us..

- Deborah Douglas is an adjunct lecturer in journalism at Northwestern University. Michele Weldon is an assistant professor emerita of journalism at Northwestern University.