In 1993, a white anti-apartheid activist, American Amy Biehl, encountered and was murdered by young black men in South Africa. Her story, recounted in the documentary “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” was particularly tragic as she was simply a convenient target, an innocent victim of generations of pent-up black anger and resentment that had nothing to do with her.
It wasn’t about her at all.
Such murders are rarely personal. Such murders, barbaric and unimaginable, often reflect, to an uncomfortable and unrecognizable degree the toll that generations of oppression and injustice inflict upon its victims — a toll later reflected upon the innocent — innocents like Amy Biehl and journalist James Foley.
Yes, James Foley’s monstrous murder at the hands of his ISIS captors is such a death.
It wasn’t about him at all.
I never met James Wright Foley. I knew about Jim both before and after his capture but I can’t say I followed his career — a loss on my part.
George Packer writes in The New Yorker: “We all owe a debt to James Foley. He was killed in the effort to bring news of the wars in the Arab world to the rest of us, to make them more humanly comprehensible. Foley … was acting on behalf of two principles: the right to know and the need to know. In this sense, Foley’s father did not exaggerate in calling him ‘a martyr for freedom.’ The more I learn about the man and his work, the more my admiration grows. His journalism was clear-eyed, empathetic and without the bravado that can creep into war reporting as an anesthetic against fear. By the accounts of his former fellow prisoners (those who happen to be citizens of countries that pay ransom to terror groups), he was generous, thoughtful, good-humored, unbreakable in spirit. If you had to be shackled with someone in terrifying circumstances, for months on end, you would want it to be James Foley.”
I remember my own early days as a photojournalist. I had no idea how complex everything was or what the risks were. I was occasionally arrested and detained, including in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. During the Lebanese Civil War, I was detained at checkpoints by Palestinians, Lebanese Phalangists and Druze militias. I was always released, as were colleagues in similar circumstances, often with apologies and with few consequences except for an occasional bruised ego.
In those days, every combatant realized that not antagonizing the press was important and all sides generally went out of their way to accommodate the Fourth Estate. No longer. Today, especially in civil wars where there are no “front lines,” journalists must negotiate their own way between opportunity and safety. For their part, warring parties are less reliant upon journalists to tell their story because they all use social media — often effectively. Sadly, journalists are more valuable today as currency than as storytellers.
Foley was different. Being a journalist wasn’t his job — it was his calling, and that was special. It was his need to tell the story — to reflect the suffering of the innocent and dispossessed that brought him to Syria. Foley wasn’t driven by ambition. He was driven by an unselfish humanity to make the wars in the Middle East “more humanly comprehensible.”
New Hampshire Bishop Peter Libasci, who officiated a Mass in James Foley’s honor, said that even after Foley was captured in Libya in 2011 he “went back again (to Syria) that we might open our eyes.”
Today, we must be vigilant that all eyes remain open — that the “Long Day’s Journey into Night” not be in vain.
Yet, as I write, President Barack Obama is being pilloried for admitting that a strategy for combating ISIS is not yet formed.
A strategy isn’t the same as an objective. The president’s task is to define an objective that would enhance America’s security and political interests. Then, and only then, would strategies and tactics be defined (I hope not publicly) to secure that objective.
After Sept. 11, 2001, America elevated a criminal conspiracy to a mega-global movement and legitimized al-Qaeda as a global player. Now, in the aftermath of Foley’s brutal murder, we risk doing the same — elevating a well-organized terrorist militia of only 10,000 to 15,000 ISIS members, operating mainly in a dysfunctional, broken, dystopian environment between Syria and Iraq, and populated mostly by disaffected Sunnis — to a global threat, glamorizing a terrorist, media-savvy organization and enhancing its appeal to disaffected Islamists.
Let it not be “deja vu all over again.”
Only the most culturally insensitive and politically ignorant believe that war on ISIS will solve American security concerns.
Only the most culturally insensitive and politically ignorant ignore the irrefutable fact that our interests lie in securing a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Only the most culturally insensitive and politically ignorant believe that the conflicts in Palestine, Israel, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, etc., are not connected.
But they are, as we all are.
“I don’t think there’s any story worth dying for,” I quoted journalist Anthony Shadid as saying before his 2012 death in Syria. “But I do think there are stories worth taking risks for.” (http://bit.ly/1pd5pfY)
James Foley believed Syria was a story worth taking risks for. If America’s response to his death is simply war — if our response appears to be about vengeance — then the life he lived so nobly will appear diminished.
ISIS is a malignant cancer, a black tumor both within the greater Middle East and within the Muslim nation of believers. But it is neither Islamic nor a state, and I think that America’s, and the world’s, response should reflect that truth. As a global power, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to overreact to terrorist organizations, which is why I really like the fact that the president returned to playing golf after speaking out about ISIS.
Don’t tread on me — or my golf game — was the right response!
Pope Francis, in a letter of condolence and prayer sent to James Foley’s family, added that he “joins all who mourn him in praying for an end to the senseless violence and the dawn of reconciliation and peace among all the members of the human family.”
Today, let us all join the Foleys and all who mourn James and pray for reconciliation and peace.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.