In the chapel at Shelter Rock, there is a piece of framed Hebrew calligraphy hanging on the eastern wall that reads da li-f‘nei mi atah omeid, “know before Whom you are standing.” The expression goes back to a story in the Talmud featuring Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the most famous sages of his day, who was lying on his death bed when his disciples came to visit to ask for some final bits of his wisdom, for some final advice regarding the best way to be sure of a portion in the World to Come. There were several, it turned out. And one was to be certain, when turning to heaven in prayer, “that you know before Whom you are standing.” Those words grace the eastern walls of countless synagogues and sanctuaries. But they don’t only constitute sage advice when applied to someone standing in prayer before the Almighty. Indeed, they can constitute sage advice in a fully secular context as well. And that is how I have been thinking of them just lately as I attempt to know before whom, not I personally, but our nation and its allies are standing.
It was in that exact spirit that I finally forced myself—and “forced myself” is saying the very least—to watch the 22-minute-long video of the execution of First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was burned to death by his ISIS captors on January 3. (He was promoted posthumously to the rank of captain, but was a first lieutenant at the time of his death.) I didn’t want to watch. What normal person would? Still, I asked myself, should I not want to know before whom we are standing, whom we have engaged in what could easily turn into a “real” war and not just an extended series of air attacks? And so I did watch, finding myself both unable to look directly at the screen yet also unable to look away. (If any readers find it hard to understand how it could be possible to feel both ways at once, you can find the video easily enough with a very simple Google search. I won’t provide the precise URL, but I will tell you that it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to find it if you wish. If you do watch, you can trust me that you will understand instantly just how it can be possible to be utterly repulsed and fully arrested by the same set of images at the same time.)
He’s a handsome young man. He looks like the twenty-six-year old that he was. The video begins with a long harangue directed against Kasasbeh’s country, Jordan, and showing pictures of the Jordanian leadership palling around with President Obama. Then, clearly speaking under duress, the prisoner starts by berating the Hashemite kingdom for its participation in the war against ISIS. He is seated at a table and clearly trembling as he goes on to talk quietly about his mission, the one that ended with his plane, an F-16 fighter jet, crashing near Raqqa, Syria. Kasasbeh, bruised but relatively hale, is shown next walking amidst rubble at the scene of an apparent Western coalition air raid. And then we get down to it as Kasasbeh now appears confined in a black steel cage wearing a day-glo orange jump suit and watched over by nine of his captors. A backtrack plays rhythmic Middle-Eastern-style music. An ISIS assassin lights a long fuse that leads directly into the cage. And then we watch on—we the viewers and we the world—as this poor soul is set on fire and, fully engulfed in flames, collapses to the ground. A group of armed militants wearing beige balaclavas and camouflage-style fatigues too watch on, their demeanor grim and calm as their prey is mercilessly murdered before their own eyes. At the end of the video, a reward is offered for the murder of other coalition pilots. And then, to make that last point just a bit sharper, the video actually names several high-profile figures within the Jordanian Air Force and displays the words “Wanted Dead” next to their names and faces in English and Arabic. This is ISIS. These are the people before whom our nation now stands.
This is not my normal behavior. I, who can’t read enough about the Shoah, somehow shy away from viewing actual horror footage. When it was announced that Alfred Hitchcock’s long-supressed and apparently intensely graphic documentary about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops in 1945 had been restored and that it was going to be made available this year for viewing along with a new documentary by Andre Singer about the making of the original one, for example, I found myself strangely uneager to see either. The older one, saddled by its producer Sidney Bernstein (Hitchcock was technically Bernstein’s advisor) with the bizarre name German Concentration Camp Factual Survey, was left unfinished for seventy years and only finally restored last year by film scholars at England’s Imperial War Museum, then screened for the first time at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. (It’s easy to joke about the irony of such a movie having its premiere in such a venue, but it was also brave and honest for the festival leadership to allow it to be shown. It can’t have been an easy decision.) German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is seventy-two minutes long, but only twelve minutes of actual footage from that original film made it into Singer’s documentary, called Night Will Fall and widely broadcast in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and the U.S. (It was broadcast here on HBO and remains available to HBO GO subscribers for free.) I could watch it this weekend! Maybe even I will…but also maybe I won’t. It’s hard to explain why I feel so reticent about seeing graphically portrayed what I read about almost obsessively. It feels that way even to me. I feel that I should see it…and, eventually, I know that I will. Just maybe not this weekend.
And then, on a kind of a roll, I watched the short video, only sixty-seven seconds long, about the January 30 beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It begins with a black screen on which appear the words in English: “A Message to the Government of Japan.” We then see an ISIS man, the man called Jihadi John by the press, speaking English with what British listeners seem unanimously to agree is a strong London accent as he berates the West for daring to go to war with ISIS, which he references as the Islamic caliphate, and threatens Japan with further reprisals. Goto is wearing the same day-glo orange outfit that the other prisoners in these videos wear. He is kneeling during the opening harangue and appears strangely calm. Probably, he was drugged. He is clearly conscious, though, and he closes his eyes when his captor grabs at his collar and pulls the fabric tight. We then see him, the captor, raise his knife and press it to Goto’s neck, but then the screen fades and the next thing we see is Goto’s body lying on the ground with his severed head perched grotesquely atop his chest.
That was enough for me. More than enough, actually. I got the idea. I hate looking at things like this. I don’t even like make-believe horror movies, let alone real ones. And yet I felt that I wanted to see these videos, that I for some reason needed to see them. It’s easy to talk about barbarism, easy to reference the actions of hostile nations and entities as brutal or ruthless or inhumane. In short, it’s easy to insult…and particularly when those insults serve not truly to harm those against whom they are hurled but, more profoundly, to insulate us from having to look at reality directly and squarely in the eye. The world was once filled with reports about the brutal treatment to which were subjected the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. I mentioned just a few weeks ago Jacob Apensziak’s horrific Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published at the end of 1943 which recounted in excruciating detail how a full million Polish Jews had already been slaughtered. The world was unconcerned. Or perhaps that is too harsh: the world was concerned…but without actual footage not to dare look away from it was possible for the world, and by “the world” I certainly include FDR and the rest of our American political leadership, to convince themselves that the annihilation of European Jewry was not their problem. Would they have had the nerve to look away if they had actual footage of the camps to not dare look away from, if they had seen with their own eyes the execution ditches, the selection ramp, the gas chambers, the crematoria? It’s hard to say, of course. But in my heart I think that images speak to us differently than do words…and I also believe that the absence of that kind of graphic evidence of the Nazis’ crimes is what made it possible for so many to make hard their hearts and, in the end, to do nothing to save the Jews of Europe other than to struggle to win the war before the last one among them was finally murdered.
The king of Jordan knew what to do. He was in Washington when the video depicting Captain al-Kasasbeh’s execution was released, but he flew home immediately and began his response by ordering the execution of two al-Qaeda prisoners whose release had earlier been demanded by ISIS, and regarding whose release he had previously authorized negotiations aimed at bringing Captain al-Kasasbeh home safely. Then he sent dozens of fighter jets into the sky to hit ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. And then he announced that this was the beginning, not the end, of his response to the pilot’s murder. That kind of forceful, instant response aimed at fighting fire with fire was, I believe, entirely justified. King Abdullah felt personally challenged to respond, and respond he did. We are slowly turning the tide against ISIS say the pundits who analyze such things and of that we Americans should surely be proud. But refusing to look at the actual images presented in those videos will end up weakening, not strengthening, our resolve to act vigorously and decisively in a war that feels different in many ways from other conflicts in which our nation has engaged over the last decades. We need to force ourselves not only to know, but actually to see, whom it is we are facing, who is standing before us.