I only knew James Foley for a brief time, but our lives intersected in a way that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.
We met in 2011, after he was released from his captivity in Libya. He came to his alma mater Marquette University to speak about being a journalist in a combat zone.
I organized his interviews with the media during his visit. I remember him graciously spending as long as each local journalists needed, every time going over his allotted availability with no complaints. He knew what it was like to go the extra mile to get the story.
What struck me most about him at first was his cool, calm and collected demeanor. He had this presence about him, like he was the lead singer of a band who didn’t read his press clippings.
You could just tell he had this rich inner life. He had a well of strength and calmness. I’ve never met someone so motivated and driven and yet so centered and peaceful.
He met with students. He sat and talked. He was one of us.
So that’s what made the news of his brutal execution even more jarring. How could someone take the life of the very best of humanity? It’s unfathomable.
James Wright Foley was captured in Syria in November 2012. Statistically, he was working in the most dangerous country in the world for journalists — by far. Nearly 70 journalists have been killed in Syria in the last two years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In addition, more than 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria and 20 are missing. That doesn’t count what’s gone unreported, and the systematic targeting and intimidation tactics by ISIS to censor and control media reports.
James went directly into the heart of darkness.
So why did he return to such a terrifying place and risk his life yet again? Quite simply, he was seeking the truth. And he would go to the ends of the earth for it.
That’s what I realized as I searched for some sort of meaning in the senselessness.
His life mattered. What he did mattered. Even in death, he brought the truth about atrocities to the world.
“I believe that front-line journalism is important, you know — without these photos and videos and first-hand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be,” he once told the Boston Globe.
He said the same thing when he spoke at Northwestern University, where he received his masters in journalism.
“That’s part of the problem with these conflicts. We’re not close enough to it,” he said. “If we don’t try to get really close to what these guys — men, women, Americans, and now, with this Arab Revolution, young Arab men, Young Egyptians and Libyans — are experiencing, you don’t understand the world, essentially.”
Secretary of State John Kerry echoed that sentiment in a tribute after James was murdered.
“Nothing could stop him from sharing with the world the reality of what was happening on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the struggle against a brutal dictator in Libya, and he was just as determined to do the same from Syria,” he said. “He was brave and bold, and no masked coward can ever steal the legacy of this courageous American who lived out the meaning of the word journalism.”
The words of my former journalism professor Dr. William Thorn especially resonated with me.
“He was motivated to do the right thing… He kept talking about the injustice he saw, and the ability of a journalist to make a difference,” Thorn told the Catholic News Agency. “He was unafraid. His heart went out to the people who were suffering in the villages, who were getting bombed out or shelled out, who didn’t have food or clean water. That was his focus.”
Shortly after I met James, I received an email from him. He thanked me for playing a role in the vigil that proceeded his release from Libya. Honestly, my friend Emily did almost all the work organizing the service, contacting his friends to speak and meeting his family. But he thanked me all the same.
“I am writing to thank you for your efforts to publicize my captivity,” he wrote. “My family and I am forever grateful. It meant so much to my family and provided a platform for us to reach others who helped secure our release.”
He referenced his motivation to become an inner city teacher, and later, a war correspondent. He talked about how the experience changed him.
“I hadn’t truly lived the values of seeing God in all people and things until my freedom was taken from me for 44 days,” he wrote. “I was truly humbled and broken.”
Humbled is a good word to describe him. Selfless is another.
Just before getting the news about James, I was working on lesson plans for a Media Writing class I’m teaching again this fall.
I decided to delve into the fundamental question, “What is the media?” I planned on talking about new distribution models, and digital tactics and techniques, and explore what the media will look like in 10 years.
I think those are still important questions and will define the future of the media.
But what James showed is that there’s a more basic definition of journalism and what the media can accomplish at its best.
It searches for and shares the truth.
Some people will give their lives for that right.