Photo: AFP/GETTY (via The Telegraph)

As reports trickled out of northern Iraq last week about the living hell that ISIS had brought to earth for hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis, one detail kept coming up in the stories that haunted my social media feeds: They’re beheading children.

If it was true, it was a damning detail worthy of international outrage. But even if it was false, ISIS (or ISIL, or the Islamic State, depending who you ask) was still guilty of atrocities, possibly even genocide. What difference does one headline-grabbing detail make?

Turns out, it makes a lot of difference. Forgetting for a moment the inherent value of truth, we know that even fudged details like the beheading of children, the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, or the sinking of a U.S. warship off the coast of Cuba can convince a populace to accept a military action or political solution that might otherwise be unpalatable. And anyway, if we’re going to look at the face of evil, we should look it square in the eyes.

I’m a journalist by trade, so when I see a headline like “Leader: ISIS is ‘Systematically Beheading Children’ in ‘Christian Genocide,'” which appeared on the website cnsnews.com last week and somehow got a few days’ worth of mileage on Facebook, my first thought is: What’s CNS News? Scrolling down the page, I see an ad for a conference hosted by CNS News’ owner, the conservative Media Research Center, featuring a glowing review by Ann Coulter. At the bottom of the story is a promise from the editors to “report the news the liberal media distort and ignore.” Call me an elitist, but I tend not to trust news that is delivered by conspiracy theorists and endorsed by screeching shock jocks.

Next question: Who is the “leader” being cited in the headline? The answer is Mark Arabo, whose only listed qualifications are “California businessman and Chaldean-American.” All CNS News has done is repackage a few quotes from an interview done by CNN in which, it should be noted, the interviewer seems skeptical of Arabo’s claims. As Joe Carter asked in an excellent fact-check over at The Gospel Coalition, if Arabo can get this news in San Diego, why has no one in Iraq confirmed it to the news media yet? Unless you really believe the entire media industry is engaged in a fiendish anti-Christian campaign, there’s no reason to think that real journalists wouldn’t pounce on that story in a heartbeat.

Are children being beheaded in Iraq? It’s possible, but I see no reason to believe it yet.

Maybe the next question to ask is why we want to believe that ISIS is beheading Christian children. The simple answer is that it helps us see the members of ISIS as barbarians, which in turn makes our hatred of them uncomplicated. If these people really are our enemies — and, regardless of the particulars, it’s safe to say they are — then Christians are commanded to love and pray for them. It’s one of the most beautiful and infuriating things Jesus ever said.

The beheaded-children stories are also a case study in confirmation bias. Standing on the shore of a cesspool of social-media-approved faux-news and viral-marketed bilge, we wade right in and scarcely think to check sources as long as the stories support our presuppositions. We share, like, and retweet a speculation until its ubiquity washes back over us and we convince ourselves of its truth.

So how should we respond when, a week later, the Christian Broadcasting Network is still trotting out the headline “ISIS Swallowing Iraq: ‘They’re Beheading Children‘” with absolutely no confirmation of the beheading detail? We should respond with truth.

The truth is that attacks from ISIS are hitting the Yazidis just as hard as the Christians, and we should stand in solidarity with them as well. The New Yorker‘s George Packer has written a gripping account of a Yazidi family on the run that is worth reading if you want to understand the experience of religious minorities in Iraq right now.

The truth is that ISIS really did give Iraqis an ultimatum of conversion or death. Some Christians have given their lives rather than abandon their faith, while hundreds of thousands of others have fled with their families to the relative safety of Iraq’s Kurdistan region. According to a recent UN report, conditions there continue to be life-threatening. Thousands of families are reportedly braving temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit while living on Sinjar Mountain, and they are counting on air-dropped food and water from the governments of Iraq and the U.S. to survive.

The truth is that some Iraqi women will feel the repercussions of ISIS attacks for the rest of their lives. While journalists have disputed the veracity of an early report saying that ISIS ordered female genital mutilation for 4 million women and girls in the city of Mosul, there have been credible reports of rapes and forced marriages.

The truth is bleak, maybe even bleaker than the rumors. But in this time of inexhaustible credulity, let’s take the time to find the hard truth before we repeat the latest bit of bad news. And may we respond to the darkness of these times in prayer, word, and action.

(For a fairly exhaustive look at ISIS’s actions in Iraq, I recommend this Aug. 7 CNN report by Josh Levs.)

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Paul Bowers

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