The Highest Sacrifice

4 minute read

The observation that truth is the first casualty of war has been variously attributed to Aeschylus 2,500 years ago and to Senator Hiram Johnson during World War I, but it is no less true today. In modern warfare, journalists are among the first responders, seeking out truth in the turmoil and wreckage, wherever it takes them.

This has always been dangerous, difficult work; it requires courage, certainly, but also judgment, subtlety, discipline, humanity. Twenty-first century war adds new risks: more and more often there are no front lines, no central command, no rules of engagement–only a chaotic collision of politics, power, faith and bloodlust. Victims are as likely to be civilians as soldiers.

Steven Sotloff, the freelance journalist who was beheaded by ISIS militants, like reporter James Foley before him, was determined to tell that story. He had reported for TIME from Libya and Turkey, eager to explore the human side of global events. I did not know Steven, but many of my colleagues from TIME and other news organizations did. He was a generous peer; the best stringers are like that, passionate about the story they are covering and eager to help others get it right and tell it well. When U.S.-based editors and columnists parachute into a news storm, it is often the stringers who keep us out of trouble, helping us glimpse the complexity behind the headlines. “As a visiting bigfoot in dangerous places,” Time’s Joe Klein says, “I’d always meet these men and women at the hotel bar–or the military helipad, waiting for a lift–and I would ask them questions, and their enthusiasm and knowledge and humanity were extraordinary. I’d buy them drinks; they gave me wisdom.”

Steven Sotloff was typical of the breed in his love for the region he covered and his deep curiosity about its people and culture. On Twitter he called himself a “stand-up philosopher from Miami.” He was drawn to the Middle East not by the battles but by the opportunity, says his friend Barak Barfi, to “give a voice to the people who didn’t have one.” He went to Yemen to study Arabic, and to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Turkey and eventually Syria. TIME correspondent Aryn Baker recalls reporting with him in February 2011, when Bahraini citizens first rose up in protest against their government. He was generous with his contacts and eager to share stories of people he had encountered while reporting. Proficient in Arabic, he helped translate for reporters with rival organizations.

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, has been even more dangerous than most, and at TIME we’ve been very careful about our coverage. Steven was not on assignment for TIME when he was abducted in August 2013, and his parents and supporters elected to keep his kidnapping out of the news, hoping that would aid his release. After Foley’s execution, Steven’s mother Shirley Sotloff issued a video plea to ISIS to “grant amnesty” to her son. “Steven is a journalist who traveled to the Middle East to cover the suffering of Muslims at the hands of tyrants,” she said. “He is an honorable man and has always tried to help the weak.”

That effort, along with a rescue attempt by U.S. Special Forces, was unsuccessful; a video of Sotloff’s beheading was released on Sept. 2. For America and the world, the brutality flaunted by ISIS like a twisted form of jihadist branding was a crime against humanity. It was also an attack on values that, in life and death, Steven ennobled for all of us. Decisionmaking in a democracy depends above all on knowledge, and not just the intel available to Presidents and policymakers. If we don’t have people on the ground, watching and working and reporting from inside these conflicts, we cannot understand and judge, as viewers, as voters, as citizens. But reporting up close has become ever more hazardous. “As both insurgent groups and the governments they fight have become more sensitive to how they are portrayed,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists, “journalists have been squeezed between threat of violent attack from one side and pressure of censorship or prosecution from the other.” Nearly three dozen journalists have been killed this year, with Syria and Iraq the most deadly countries.

We mourn and honor Steven Sotloff and James Foley and their colleagues around the world who have paid the ultimate price to defend the essence of freedom: the ability to question, to learn, to decide for ourselves.


This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.

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