The most horrifying aspect of the execution of journalist Steven Sotloff is the utter inhumanity of it — a gruesome beheading captured on video for maximum exposure. Also chilling is the cold-blooded and brutal nature of this sadistic outrage, the taking of a human life as a public spectacle, for show and to make a political point.
The first reaction is horror because of the sheer cruelty of this act, aimed at inflicting maximum pain on both the victim and the audience, followed closely by grief. In the case of Sotloff, the pain hits close to home.
Neither the outrage over the killing nor the terrifying nature of the crime should blind anyone to the underlying issues, nor should they wrongly influence the response. The executioner, a masked coward, calmly declared the killing was a reprisal for the bombing campaign carried out by the U.S. against the Islamic State in Syria. Message: The more you bomb, the more Americans we will kill.
The U.S. cannot be blackmailed. No country can allow terrorists to control foreign policy. Similarly, outrage, however justified it may be, cannot be allowed to guide American policy.
The armchair generals urging an immediate American response should be mindful of the warning of the real generals, who have declared, as the president himself has said, that dealing effectively with the IS won’t be easy.
“It requires a variety of instruments, only one part of which is airstrikes,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the U.S. chief of staff, said on Aug. 21. The IS must eventually be confronted and defeated, he went on, but it “requires the application of all the tools of national power — diplomatic, economic, information, military.”
That cannot be ginned up overnight. The best response is a coordinated Western response led by the U.S. that includes American allies in Europe and elsewhere. President Barack Obama must lead, but devising a hasty strategy in response to public pressure or domestic politics will almost surely be found wanting.
There is another realm of action that also requires coordinated policies with European nations, however, and that is the response to kidnapping and blackmail. The threat posed by the IS and other terrorist groups can best be countered by a unified response.
European governments have been much more willing than the U.S. to give in to ransom demands for their citizens. According to an exhaustive report by The New York Times earlier this summer, terrorist groups such as al-Qaida have received more than $100 million in revenue since 2008 in response to ransom demands, mainly from European governments.
That provides an incentive for terrorists to kidnap foreigners. It also puts Americans at risk, both as an abject lesson to other governments for what happens if they don’t comply and as a way to pressure this country to follow the European model.
As the deaths of Sotloff and journalist James Foley show, the U.S. and European responses are failing. As long as some countries pay and some don’t, everyone is vulnerable. If a unified response by Western countries emerges from their deaths, it could blunt IS’ push across the Mideast.