Truthdigger of the Week: James Foley
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
Statement by Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges on the death of photojournalist James Foley:
I spent two decades with those, like James Foley, who risked their lives to tell the stories of war and misery that afflicted the wretched of the earth. Like Foley, I was captured and taken prisoner, in my case in Iraq. Like Foley, I tasted the awful fear, anxiety and uncertainty that comes with daily wondering if you would be executed. Unlike Foley, I was freed. And I know from my own captivity the hell this has been for his family. War correspondents are a peculiar breed. They thrive off of risk and adrenaline. Their personal lives are often a train wreck. They don’t fit in outside of the chaotic and dangerous worlds they cover. They are brave and invariably funny. They have seen the worst of human nature and know the capacity we all have for human evil. The best of them care deeply for people whose names we often cannot pronounce and whose language is often incomprehensible. The fraternity that comprises war photographers and reporters is a bizarre one, and while I do not miss war, I miss the fraternity. Devoid of large egos — those who know they can get killed easily tend not to be prima donnas — there is a nobility about them despite their personal flaws, which they do not try to hide. They are immensely loyal in the face of danger — a quality hard to find outside that world. Foley, it appears, had all these qualities. He lived life. He risked a lot. He shunned conformity and routine. He was passionate. And that is saying a lot.
On Aug. 20 the U.S. National Security Council announced its opinion that a video uploaded to YouTube the day before purporting to show the execution of American reporter James Foley by a member of the militant group Islamic State was authentic. News of the 40-year-old’s death stung hearts around the world. He was the first American to be reported killed by the fundamentalist force, also known as ISIS, sweeping territories in Syria and Iraq in a storm of vengeful Arab and Muslim sectarian and anti-U.S. ferocity.
Speaking of American airstrikes earlier this month against advancing ISIS forces in Iraq, the masked executioner states in the video that “any attempt by you Obama to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people.” He then appears to begin the grisly work of beheading Foley. A transition of fades reveals the result, followed by the reappearance of the executioner with another captive, Time journalist Steven Joel Sotloff, about whom he says, “The life of this American citizen, Obama, depends on your next decision.”
Since Foley’s tragic death, newcomers to his saga have spent time poring over his public statements and the details of his recent past. The native of Rochester, N.H., became a journalist as a fully fledged adult, graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois in 2008 and going on to embed with the U.S. military in Iraq after years spent working as a teacher in Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois. He credited his brother’s service in the U.S. Air Force as an influence to travel overseas. Media focus has been especially centered on his capture by forces backing Moammar Gadhafi during the Libyan civil war while on assignment for GlobalPost in April 2011. He was detained with at least two other journalists after they became targets of a barrage of gunfire in which South African reporter Anton Hammerl was apparently killed. Foley was beaten and subjected to intensive questioning — but not tortured, he said, even mentioning the humanism of some of his individual captors — over a period of 44 days in a Tripoli prison. During that time the reporters concealed knowledge of Hammerl’s death on fears they would be permanently disappeared if their captors discovered they had knowledge of the killing of the journalist — a possible war crime.
Foley returned to Libya after a short time spent in the U.S. after his release. He wanted to speak with some of the people he had met in prison with the aim of telling their stories, and he ended up witnessing Gadhafi’s capture.
Foley’s apparent sensitivity and natural decency were exhibited during remarks he made on June 2, 2011, two weeks after his release, during an hourlong public discussion at alma mater Medill. Speaking of his experience as a captive, he expressed guilt over his role in deciding to move his small party of reporters in the direction that led to Hammerl’s death. The survivors’ financial means were limited, but Foley said they were working to find a way to provide for the family of their slain colleague.
The desire of the leaders of the then-embattled Libyan state to maintain a claim to legitimacy (Foley said one of Gadhafi’s sons personally saw to his release) may have saved Foley during his first capture. He was not so fortunate when he wound up in the hands of the newly formed zealous Islamic State. His brutal killing, committed by people resorting to desperate measures to gain independence from American and regional state domination, may assist us in the belief that some of us are motivated by an irrepressible desire to make sure that human suffering — if not averted — is at least known. Foley was “drawn to the human rights side” of war reporting, as he told the BBC in 2012 while admiringly remembering the humanism of the slain Hammerl. His family said he “gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” For that, we honor James Foley as our Truthdigger of the Week.
See a sample of Foley’s work, compiled by the BBC, here.
Hear Foley discuss his capture in Libya:
Watch Foley speak at Medill in 2011, two weeks after his release from Libyan custody: