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 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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About The Author

Paul Bowers

8 Responses to The Specter of Beheaded Iraqi Christian Children

  1. matt says:

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

    No reason to believe it? Your perspective, while unfortunately growing more common and trendy, is one shaped and cultivated by the comforts and shelter of a life in the West, where beheadings are few and far between.

    How’s this for a reason to believe it- Actions like beheading children are in the very nature of Islamic extremism; the lifeblood, even.

    This proves very difficult for the typical left-leaning American to accept, as you are certainly not alone in your insistence on watering-down, wicked behavior.

    It seems the modern westerner has been unaffected by the barbarism of the rest of the world for too long; you and many others are not able to wrap your heads around the concept that evil exists, and the only way to stop it–the only way to protect the innocent–is to kill it.

    And yes, Christ does command us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. ISIS is not persecuting you or I, though. We are in fact thousands of miles away from the persecution. (which, no doubt, affects your reasoning) ISIS is killing God’s elect; ISIS is God’s enemy. The Psalmist who was called “a man after God’s own heart” had this to write concerning how he felt toward God’s enemies.

    “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!O men of blood, depart from me!
    They speak against you with malicious intent;
    your enemies take your name in vain.
    Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
    And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
    I hate them with complete hatred;
    I count them my enemies.”

    -Psalm 139:19-22

    I watched my friends pick up the remains of two afghan children who were blown to bits by a grenade which was de-pinned and placed under a toy as a victim-initiated IED, obviously meant to attract these children. It may be difficult for you to fathom, but that is a glimpse into the mind of the Islamic extremist.

    I will err on the side of defending God’s elect, before I do as you have done, and try to make excuses for those who hate Him and His people, and criticize fellow believers for their hatred of such blatant wickedness. I may be wrong, but I would more readily come before God and defend my reasoning than come before Him and defend yours.

    • Patrick Sawyer says:

      I’m an Evangelical believer. Much (not all) of my theology is situated in the Reformed tradition. In fact my favorite commentary on Psalm 139 (which you quote) is by Charles Spurgeon in his Treasury of David series. Spurgeon dedicates 34 pages of commentary to the 24 verses of Psalm 139.

      Psalm 139, particularly the portion you quoted is strong tonic. Tonic, rightly understood, that is needed to balance our thinking in the matters discussed by Mr. Bowers. As you may well know, Spurgeon was a voracious reader. In his commentary, on verse 21, he quotes the renown 19th century American Presbyterian theologian and pastor, Albert Barnes. Barnes says, “The expression here, “grieved”, explains the meaning of the “hate” in the former member of the verse. It is not that hatred which is followed by malignity or ill will, it is that which is accompanied with grief, pain of heart, pity, sorrow. So the Savior looked at men: Mark 3:5. The Hebrew word used here, however, contains also the idea of being disgusted with, of loathing, of nauseating. The feeling referred to is anger – conscious disgust – at such conduct; grief, pain, sorrow, that men should evince such feelings toward their Maker”.

      Matt, given the difficulty in understanding the doctrinal implications of the portions of Psalm 139 you quoted, I think you needed to give some explication.

      I also think you need to keep in mind 2Timothy 2:24 because I think you were significantly unfair to Mr. Bowers. You have made several accusations of Mr. Bowers that are unfounded based on the content of his article. You use accusatory language directed to him, at times of a personal nature, that are rooted in speculation (not the content of his post). You do this in paragraphs 1,4,5,6,8, and 9 of your comment and you only have nine paragraphs.

      While I think Mr. Bowers assessment of Ann Coulter was unfairly derivative (although I am not an overall fan of Ms. Coulter), Mr. Bowers certainly acknowledged and sincerely lamented the abject evil of ISIS. He does that so clearly there is no need to recount it here.

      Matt, I say this with respect, I think you need to re-evaluate your criticism.

    • Paul Bowers says:


      I think we’re talking about two different things here. I’m not writing about the “nature of Islamic extremism,” as you say; I’m writing about what has and has not happened in northern Iraq. I do, of course, side with the persecuted Christians. But why err on one side or another when there’s no need to err? The facts we have are awful enough. Speculation, when proven false, only weakens the credibility of the cause.

      – Paul Bowers

      • AC700 says:

        Hey Paul, it’s bad…. Maybe even worse…. There is no right & left…. Only truth & lies….. The more truth is repressed, the less the media & the wanna-bes like you guys are able to spin….. Splitting hairs about beheaded children, really? Is this what it has come to? Pray for the savages…. And don’t believe they are THAT bad?

        You guys are weak, sad & pathetic….. Stand for something or fall

  2. piéton says:

    I’m not a journalist, but I’ve reached the same conclusions regarding impact of this news. I’ve noticed alot of pictures from Syria and even one from Gaza have been re-used to represent the christian plight in Iraq, like on certain web sites ( for ex.). What sources can you trust these days?!?

  3. danallison says:

    Why would anyone want to kill Christ or eliminate the Church from the earth? I mean the Bible doesn’t say that Christians will experience tribulation in this life or anything like THAT! No doubt, just propaganda from those mean mean-spirited meanies, the right-wing Christians — distracting us good progressives from our important — vital in fact — efforts to get more Hispanic lesbian superheroes into Marvel comic books.

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