On August 19th, the Islamic State uploaded a video to YouTube entitled ‘A Message to America’. In it, a knife-wielding militant stands over the terrified James Foley, a US journalist captured in northwestern Syria in 2012. The beheading begins and the sequence includes an image of his bloody, decapitated corpse. On Tuesday, Steven Sotloff met the same grisly fate.
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was James Foley’s friend. They’d reported on multiple conflicts together across many years, including the civil war in Syria.
Last week Anderson gave the inaugural lecture at the ‘Ecole de journalisme’ of Sciences Po in Paris. His account of Foley’s murder set the tone. Having seen 7 of his closest friends die on duty in the last 3 years, Anderson painted a bleak, grim picture of the lethal challenges facing war correspondents and investigative reporters today.
‘They’re making a sport of killing journalists’, he said. ‘We live in a world where the new normal is chaos. The new normal is chronic conflict.’
His lecture was at once terrifying, moving and deeply inspirational.
Anderson has seen his fair share of violence. His first big break as a journalist came covering the hotspots of the Cold War in Central America for TIME Magazine in the early 1980s. He would fully immerse himself in conflicts, often going as far as living alongside guerrillas and freedom fighters.
‘I like to understand their psyche,’ he explained. ‘I like to go to a conflict zone and work out what’s happening. I write long stories about what I see there.’
Yet he found TIME stifling, a magazine with ‘establishment’ tendencies that suppressed his pursuit of the impartial truth. Editors would often turn down his work and he began to doubt his ability as a writer.
‘But as I got more experienced,’ Anderson said, ‘I realised I was actually a pretty good reporter and I was seeing things that needed to be reported.’
Frustration at this great American publication pushed him into freelance and, most recently, The New Yorker, a world where Anderson feels better able to fulfil, in his view, a journalist’s highest calling: spreading the impartial truth in the best way possible.
How can I be independent? How do I avoid ingratiating myself to my editor-in-chief just because I want a promotion? These were the questions that Anderson wrestled with as a young writer.
In recalling his recent work for The New Yorker he told some masterful, harrowing stories. Two stick in the mind.
First, the story of how he’d seen a father lose his son in Libya. Osama ben Sadik, a volunteer ambulance driver, had come with his two sons to support the revolution against Qadaffi. Muhannad, the elder of the two sons, was fighting at the front.
Anderson relays the torturous account of how Osama hears of the apparent death of Muhannad, shot by Qadaffi’s forces, and the ensuing trauma of not knowing his exact fate. Might he still be alive? Is there still hope? Osama goes through cycles of debilitating anxiety, fear, and finally, when discovering his son’s body, religious rapture.
‘This was clearly the story,’ Anderson said. ‘I could touch people. In Arkansas, in France, or wherever they read it. I could touch people with a universal story about loss. That’s what war is about; it’s about fathers losing their sons. If you can reach through all the murk and the mess, and get an emotional response, you can change people’s minds.’
Not only was this story deeply moving, it hit upon one of the key aspirations of any journalist – the aspiration to make a difference. Anderson was honest about the fortunate position he enjoys at the New Yorker, a magazine said to be read by elites: ‘I’m finally in a place where, if I write something, it can have an impact. It may shift points of view. It might even cause legislation. But it takes a lot to get there.’
Second, the story of how he came to understand the power of Twitter. As a seasoned hack Anderson had initially been baffled by this newfound craze, thinking it was just a ‘useless distraction’, ‘something that kids did to send love notes to each other’.
But then Syria happened. It was January 28th 2012 and Jon was trapped with some civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army in the mountainous town of Rankous surrounded by Assad’s tanks.
The shelling started and Anderson called the foreign ministry to ask if they would hold fire whilst the journalists left the village. They were given 30 minutes. As he left, he took a photo on his iPhone of a woman and child with a few members of the FSA.
Once safe, he got Internet access and instantly uploaded the photo to Twitter.
The social network went berserk. Within minutes he had 1000s of new followers and the world had been alerted to an attack on a civilian area. ‘I was criticised for showing the faces of the civilians but that was my point. Maybe now the regime could be shamed into not firing on the town.’
Ultimately the tweet was fruitless. The tanks rolled in and everybody was killed. But Anderson retains a firm conviction about the humanitarian role of journalists. ‘You must not only be a journalist. You also have a duty to save civilian lives. You have to do it. Even at the risk of violating whatever code of ethics we have.’
Having seen so much bloodshed and violence over the course of his decorated career, with Syria being just one example, Anderson pulls no punches in criticising today’s international order.
Referencing rumbling sectarian conflict in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya, conflicts inter-connected and fuelled by the spread of arms, and continuing war in Ukraine, he was blunt: ‘The UN is a giant with clay feet. It, NATO, the EU; none of them are doing their job anymore.’
He was equally critical of the intelligence community, describing it as ‘at an all time low’, and that it had now fallen to journalists in many parts of the world to inform politicians about developing crises.
Yet despite this critical pragmatism, this weariness of war, this life of tracking seemingly endless conflict, he continues to go back. For a moment I felt like I could see the world through his lens. The articles are published, but to what effect? Will powerful people listen? Even if they do, will they change anything?
It seems futile but he keeps going, he keeps hunting the impartial truth. This was the inspiration. The relentless, unyielding bravery, combined with the unwavering commitment to the importance of his vocation.
‘Ive been shot at. I’ve had things done to me. But I’ve been lucky.’ I was in awe.