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On James Foley

James Foley in Syria, 2012
James Foley in Syria, 2012
Nicole Tung via freejamesfoley.org

For the 44 days I spent thinking about James Foley, he had no idea who I was. It was early 2011 and Jim, then a correspondent for the Global Post, had been kidnapped in Libya, where he was reporting on the civil war. Kidnapped with him were three other journalists, including a freelance reporter named Clare Morgana Gillis, who had filed stories for USA Today and the Atlantic, where I had been her editor.

Back in the US, a group of about ten of us at the Atlantic, USA Today, and Global Post spent the month and a half that Jim and company were in captivity agitating for their release. I'm certain most or all of it was useless, but it made us feel a little less helpless: harassing State Department officials, fumbling for useful contacts in the region, organizing media coverage. The one useful thing we did was meet with the families. While we intended to help them, it usually became the opposite. They had Jim and Clare's courage and dedication and that kept us going. By the time the journalists were freed and returned home, they were just meeting me for the first time, but I felt like I'd known them for years.

A year later, Jim disappeared near Aleppo while reporting on Syria's civil war, presumed kidnapped by people even more monstrous than Moammar Qaddafi's regime. On Tuesday, after over a year of silence, the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) posted a video of his death, and the death of his family's hope that Jim would ever come home.

The circumstances of Jim's final moments are unspeakable. But to ignore them would be a disservice to the truth-telling mission that he so often risked, and ultimately gave, his life for. An ISIS jihadist with a British accent, dressed in all black and his face covered, stands over Jim in some dusty, barren corner of the Middle East. Jim, dressed in orange and wearing a lapel microphone, is forced to kneel and recite a statement calling on Americans to "rise up against my real killer, the US government." After this final humiliation, he is beheaded.

My own interactions with Jim after he came home from Libya were scarce, but enough to glimpse the unfailing generosity and warmth that made him so beloved among his friends. Jim's faith was something we all agreed not to discuss publicly while he was held in Syria, but it was the wellspring of his generosity. He had been freed from his own harrowing captivity in Libya for only a few days when he took it upon himself to help organize a memorial fund for Anton Hammerl, a South African photographer who had been killed in Libya a few feet from Jim and Clare on the day they were kidnapped, and who had left a wife and child behind. I helped Jim with this some, though I now wish I'd done more, and I helped him get his gear out of Libya. We exchanged a few emails, mostly about Anton's family.

Mostly I knew Jim through Clare, who spoke and wrote at great length about how his kindness and unfading spirit had gotten her through their time in Libyan captivity, which was often uncertain.

"When we were detained in Tripoli, Jim automatically turned his energies to keeping up our strength and hope," she wrote in May 2013 in the publication Syria Deeply. "We shared a cell for two and a half weeks, and every day he came up with lists for us to talk through. Top 10 movies. Favorite books." When he allowed himself to worry, it was about his loved ones. "What grieved Jim most about detention was the worry he knew he was causing his family."

"Everybody, everywhere, takes a liking to Jim as soon as they meet him," she wrote, which I believe is true. In a 2011 essay in the Atlantic about their ordeal: "He tended to address other men as 'brother' within seconds of meeting them."

Here is Jim, confident but ever unassuming, speaking in 2011 to students at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism:

There will be many efforts in the coming days to derive meaning from Jim's death. Some will say ISIS had him killed to punish the US for its recent air strikes against them in Iraq, some will say it was to egg the Americans on, and others will attribute it to simple madness.

I would rather derive meaning from Jim's life. As a journalist, I want to celebrate his dedication to truth and understanding. But that would sell him short. It is clear even just by secondhand accounts from the family that would do anything to help him, even when he insisted on returning to a war zone, and from the friends who were so enriched by knowing him, that Jim's value was so much more.