Why the David Haines Beheading Was the Most Horrific of All

Foley and Sotloff may have told the stories of human suffering: but Haines was working to relieve it.

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British aid worker David Haines before he was killed, video posted on the Internet by Islamic State militants and provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, Sept. 13, 2014
British aid worker David Haines before he was killed, video posted on the Internet by Islamic State militants and provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, Sept. 13, 2014Credit: AP

Let’s be honest: one of the reasons that the brutal executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State received such wall-to-wall coverage in the international media was because they were journalists.

It is probably only natural that when bad things happen to members of the press, we hear and read about them more than other casualties of war and strife. Many Western civilians have lost their lives in trouble spots at the hands of terrorist groups or under fire. But reporters killed in conflicts, especially those deliberately murdered to make a statement usually get a lot more coverage. It’s been over a decade since Daniel Pearl’s murder and most of us still remember it vividly.

Victims like Pearl, Foley and Sotloff all have colleagues in the media who pen moving first-person articles. Even those members of the media writing about their capture and death who never met them, do so with extra empathy, because they can’t help putting themselves in the shoes of the victims. And the world takes note of their loss, because such writers are, in a sense, public figures. We know their names through their bylines on stories. Journalism, even in its currently beleaguered economic state, is still a high-profile profession.

But 44-year-old David Haines wasn’t a journalist, nor was he a public figure by any stretch of the imagination. He toiled without recognition - no byline and no glamour. He worked in the shadows under the radar.

Like the previous two victims of the Islamic State, we are only learning about what kind of a man Haines was after his demise, since the details of his kidnapping were kept quiet for a full year in hopes that quiet and discretion would benefit negotiations on his behalf.

And from what we are learning, it sounds like an impressive and impactful life. The Daily Mail quotes his brother Mike Haines as saying that David “helped whoever needed help, regardless of race, creed or religion," and said he had been "most alive and enthusiastic" when involved with such missions and was full of "joy and anticipation for the work he went to do in Syria.”

“Joy” and “Syria” aren’t two words we hear in the same sentence very often.

We know now that Syria wasn’t the first dangerous location in which Haines, the father of two daughters worked - he had been in Libya and South Sudan. But he spent the bulk of his career as an aid worker in Croatia, where he was based, when that region was devastated by civil war. A BBC report, which includes footage of Haines, said he was described as “passionate” about his work.

When his kidnapping first went public on September 2, when he was shown kneeling in an orange jumpsuit in the Sotloff execution video, clearly “next in line” those whom he had helped were stunned.

An earlier report in the Telegraph on September 4 described the horrified and tearful reaction of his 67-year-old former landlady Nena Skoric, who said that in the aftermath of the war in the former Yugoslavia, “it was like God had sent David to this place. It didn't matter to him whether people were Croats, Serbs or Muslims, as long as they needed help. Many of the people from all sides had destroyed each other's houses during the war. There were many families who had lost everything. But they all loved David.”

Haines, we learn from the woman he called “Mama” affectionately, “helped thousands of local people as he led efforts to build new homes and schools for refugees returning to their shattered villages, and became so frustrated at the lack of available funds that he would donate a large slice of his salary to pay for materials and other essentials.”

His former landlady said Haines had been a “workaholic” when it came to improving the lives of refugees and helping rebuild the country. She wished she could trade places with him since she had already had a long life and he had so much left to give.

His former colleague in Croatia told the Telegraph, that it felt as if Haines had been “punished for helping others.” Haines’ Islamic State executioners clearly didn’t care that in Croatia, as well as in Libya and South Sudan and Syria, he had been helping and caring for Muslims.

Yes, it is truly awful that journalists have become fair game, and that the fate of Foley and Sotloff will prevent other journalists from bring stories of suffering to the world.

But with all due respect to the importance of my profession, people like Haines do more than just tell stories - they relieve that suffering. Because Haines was killed, because aid workers are now targets, fewer people will be fed and sheltered by international agencies and the brave men and women who staff them. That magnifies both the tragedy of his death and the astonishing degree of unfeeling evil of the group that took his life.



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