In September 1943 a photograph appeared in Life magazine showing three dead American soldiers half buried in the sand on Papua New Guinea at a place called Buna Beach. Taken by the great photojournalist George Strock, it was the first time that any photograph depicting dead American troops had appeared in any American publication during World War II.
It took nearly a year to persuade War Department censors and President Franklin Roosevelt that the photo should be seen by the American public. War correspondents and photographers had so far mostly accentuated the positive in their dispatches from various battle fronts, but Roosevelt and many others were concerned that Americans had become complacent about a war that was far from won, and they eventually decided that a shocking dose of reality was needed.
The Washington Post agreed. In an editorial shortly after the photo’s publication, it said, “An overdose of such photographs would be unhealthy. But in proper proportion they can help us to understand something of what has been sacrificed for the victories we have won. Against a tough and resourceful enemy, every gain entails a cost. To gloss over this grim fact is to blur our vision. If we are to behave as adults in meeting our civilian responsibilities, we must be treated as adults. This means simply that we must be given the truth without regard to fears about how we may react to it.”
I thought of that photo last week while wrestling with a decision as to how to illustrate a story in this issue. The story concerns an upcoming ecumenical prayer service in solidarity with persecuted Christians. One of the clergymen who is scheduled to attend the event, Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Diocese of Los Angeles, will be speaking about—and praying for—the recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya by Islamic State militants.
Catholic News Service moved a pair of still images last week that were taken from a video, one of which showed black-clad and masked Islamic State militants standing behind the 21 Egyptian men, supposedly on a sandy beach near Tripoli. The men were dressed in orange jumpsuits and kneeling in the sand with their heads bowed, and the militants appeared to be armed with long-bladed knives.
I intended to pair the photo with the prayer service story, believing that there could be no more forceful way to underscore the theme of the service: that Christians were dying for no other reason than the profession of their faith, and that the era of martyrdom had not ended. Some readers would object, I was certain, but this was the reality of our times.
It was also, I later decided, a ferocious piece of propaganda. Who, I wondered, would derive the most benefit, experience the most satisfaction, feel the greatest sense of triumph at seeing the image reproduced and disseminated? Surely it would be the monsters who shot the video in the first place: the Islamic State killers.
The photo you’ll see instead shows a group of neighbors, friends and relatives of the victims praying during a Mass near Cairo, gathered behind a banner with photos of the dead men.
It is one thing to confront disquieting reality on a visceral human level. It is another to allow evil to have a dictated presence.