Barbarians

08.20.14

The James Foley I Knew in the ISIS War Zone

The savage beheading carried out by the thugs of the so-called Islamic State ended the life of brave man and a valiant journalist.

I have not steeled myself yet to click and watch the video posted by jihadists Wednesday of the final minutes in the life of American journalist James Foley. I am not sure I ever will.

I try to avoid watching, to the extent I can, the online productions of the barbarity jihadists dish out to those they deem foes and infidels—it is too painful and sickening. As a Mideast correspondent sometimes I have to look at these things, and it strikes me whenever I do that somehow I am colluding in murder: I am being made to do something by the jihadists I don’t want to do, and am allowing myself to be manipulated. If no one watched and there was no publicity, would they still do this? That, anyway, is my human reaction to the beheadings and beatings and shootings—that and a wave of horror at the depravity, the wickedness and inhumanity of it all.

And this video of the barbaric murder of a fine young man—and a reporter who had a passion for journalism and cared about what he was covering and about the innocents caught up in the horror of war—is something I want to approach not as a professional. I don’t want to remember him that way and I don’t want to observe his suffering.

I didn’t know James well—I would have liked very much an opportunity to know him better. We crossed paths several times in southern Turkey and northern Syria, coming from the war zone heading to safety or with heavier and darker step traveling the other way. We had drunk together—and with other colleagues—in a handful of bars in the southern Turkish town of Antakya or in the Liwan Hotel there.

We talked about our lives—hopes and fears, loves, successes, setbacks and failures. Being much older, my list was longer. We talked about what had led us to this point in our lives and why we do what we do. I warmed to him immediately—it was impossible not to—unless you are a demented ideologue who has lost normal human reactions. He was a biggish lad, with a boyish, slightly mischievous grin, and thoughtfulness and consideration were seamed in his character.

Some have suggested that care for others came from his religious faith. That might well be, but I think it came also from deep within his emotional being—he wanted instinctively to connect with people and communicate with them, a great underpinning for journalism.

He came late to the profession, having been a teacher before, and when I learned that it didn’t surprise me. He was still fresh to the…well I was going to write “the business,” but for James, as for me, it isn’t really a business—it is a vocation, and that clinched my liking for this gentle but determined lad from the Granite State.

For James, journalism was bearing witness, especially when it comes to frontline coverage. He didn’t strike me like some among the young freelancers flocking to the Mideast—it wasn’t about having an experience, or play-acting the role or even using frontline reporting as a stepping-stone to a cushy reporting job back home. He believed in the importance of contributing to the first rough draft of history. Some may think that romantic nonsense. It isn’t.

For James, journalism was bearing witness, especially when it comes to frontline coverage.

He worked hard—doing all the demanding multimedia reporting we have to do nowadays. He was thorough. He connected. Some of the older war correspondents have expressed worry that the younger ones are staying on the frontlines and in danger zones for longer periods than is “safe” for them. Veterans try to go in for bursts, no more than a handful of days in really hot zones on several grounds—the longer you stay, the greater the risk; you start letting your guard down; and you don’t realize the psychological damage you are doing to yourself enduring the stress of the work and observing the distress all around you.

I expressed that concern to James. But I felt of all of the younger ones I came across, he was equipped better emotionally than most. I am not writing that to suggest that his capture near the town of Taftanaz in northern Syria on Thanksgiving Day in 2012 was because he had been in too long. But there will no doubt be a second wave of articles about him that try to second-guess his decisions in the days before he was seized at gunpoint.

Be that as it may, the plain fact is that war journalism is a highly risky undertaking, especially in the Mideast nowadays, and you can run through all the procedures and follow precautions and reduce perils as much as you can, and you still risk abduction or death. There is an element of luck and chance and veterans fall as well—more than two years ago the indomitable and wonderful Marie Colvin, another reporter, was claimed by the war in Syria.

I mourn James’s passing and I am deeply angry with the barbarians who did this to a fine young man. Jon Lee Anderson writing on his Facebook page commented: “I am sickened and filled with hatred today for the psychopaths who murdered Jim Foley after two long years as a hostage. My heart goes out to his family, and I wish them some kind of peace, but what comfort can ever be offered them? I hope Jim’s killers suffer in the same way they made him suffer, meanwhile.” I feel exactly the same. God Speed, James.