By Claire Ballor
“I just wanted to tell her I was strong, I was praying and I could make it.” These were the words of American journalist James Foley in 2011 when he recounted his six-week capture in Libya where he was covering untold stories of those suffering in the war-torn country. After 20 days in the captivity of Gaddafi supporters, Foley had one phone call to make, which he used to call his worried mother to assure her that he was going to get out of captivity and back home safely. Twenty-four days later, he was released, able to tell his story along with the horrors he witnessed in Libya firsthand.
Most people don’t know of Foley’s first experience in captivity, only of his recent capture and beheading on behalf of ISIS militants. But the story of Foley’s first capture and his return to war zone reporting sheds light on the admirability of his service as a freelance journalist. Foley knew what he committed to when he went to Libya and when he returned to report in Syria. He understood what it really meant to be an international journalist in a war zone and to face the accompanying dangers. But, even more significantly, he understood and feared the dangers of allowing the tragedies happening in the Middle East to go unreported.
In every interview conducted after his release on May 18, 2011, Foley told the story of his captivity with calm, clarity, and fortitude, but his focus would quickly turn back to those he saw suffering in Libya. More important to him were the stories of others, of those living in war-ravaged countries, particularly the children affected. He felt a deep and relentless sense of responsibility to tell their stories, even if it meant risking his own safety.
In a recent NBC interview of Foley’s parents, his mother remembered him as being “so committed to the people whose suffering he was trying to humanize.” This was Foley’s motivation: to humanize the suffering and tragedy of the lives of others in a numb world. The stories he told were honest with an infectious and palpable sense of bravery and responsibility.
Steven Sotloff, the second captured American journalist to be beheaded by ISIS militants, shared Foley’s same passion and sense of responsibility. He too dedicated his life to exposing truth and giving a voice to those without one. Together, he and Foley represent journalists around the world who persistently put their lives in danger for the sake of defending their country and the dignity of all human life.
Their tragic deaths highlight the horrors of ISIS, but far more importantly, they highlight the value of journalists and the criticality of their work. Sotloff and Foley did more than write articles and take pictures, they gave words and imagery to the brutality around them in hopes that the world might see, hear and respond.
ISIS did not kill Sotloff and Foley simply because they were Americans, they killed them because they were a direct threat to their mission; a mission to suppress and destroy through violence and stifled education. What Sotloff and Foley dedicated their lives to was the spread of education and awareness, both of which are threatening weapons against terrorist groups such as ISIS.
Syrian rebels in Krafanbel recently released a tribute to Foley saying, “Humanity is proud of James,” and their words couldn’t be more meaningful. The work Foley and Sotloff lost their lives for was not just for the people of Syria or America, but also for humanity as a whole, and for that we are all forever indebted.
Journalists aren’t just storytellers. They are historians. They are ambassadors. They are humanitarians. They are public defenders. James Foley and Steven Sotloff were all of these and they lost their lives as a result. Remember Sotloff and Foley for the truth they exposed and the service they did for humanity, and perpetuate their mission by supporting international journalists who continue to risk their lives in order to expose injustice around the world.
May they rest in peace and may journalism continue to help win the fight against terrorism.