Your Mind

You Remember His Death. But What Did You Learn from the Life of James Foley?

By February 24, 2016 0

I recently stumbled upon a documentary that would turn out to be the most impactful film I have watched in recent memory.

It is about the life of conflict journalist James Foley, the man-the hero– who was beheaded by ISIS, with the video being posted on Youtube for millions to witness.

Perhaps Making a Murderer left you shaken and questioning everything you thought was true about the world.

The HBO documentary Jim: The James Foley Story will restore your lost faith in humanity.

It will also leave you disturbed by the evil and ruin that humans are capable of and some too eager to engage in.

But, in the end, it paints a portrait of a man who became more selfless than ever when faced with captivity and starvation and eventually a grisly death. It paints the picture of a caring yet enigmatic soul, constantly worried about his family yet risking his life and their sanity to fulfill a low-paying, thankless career.

James Wright Foley lost his life documenting the front lines of the fight against Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS in Syria, but he leaves behind countless lessons which we can live by every day.



1) Know how those closest to you will remember you

And more importantly, be the living example of the memories you hope to leave behind in their mind as your legacy.

Most people are aware of the beheading of the American journalist who was captured by ISIS. As the film points out, it is the second most recognized event in recent American history. To most, this is the sum of what James Foley will mean to the majority of those who are aware of his story.

But it is not the strangers whose opinions we value, especially after we are gone. It is our friends, family, and colleagues who we interact with who most determine what one’s legacy truly is.

When you watch the documentary, it quickly becomes apparent how much more than merely a journalist James Foley was, and just how lazy it is not to dig further into the intricacies of what make us us when all is said and done.

To the 18 other prisoners who were imprisoned with Foley for more than a year in a Syrian ISIS cell with one window, he will be remembered as the man that repeatedly risked his life by begging guards for extra dates or water for his friends. Not himself, his friends.

You could not help but like James Foley. He is described as a rarely gifted individual with social intelligence that can only be innate. That undeniable likability even extended to the captors who would eventually take his life. But while he was alive, he used his talent to improve the dire conditions of men who he had no connection to other than a shared, dank prison cell.

Everybody hid food, snuck what they could in order to maintain, they all admit it. James never snuck food, they all said. He would not even think of it.

He knew he would get beaten eventually for even asking the guards for extra rations, but he did it anyway.

When we are tested, our inner self is revealed. A facade is easy to maintain as a college student, but when you are locked in a relatively tiny room with 18 starved and irritable journalists, there is no hiding one’s true personality. This is what endeared these strangers to James so quickly, considering him a brother despite only a year of interaction.

James was good, and everybody he met will remember him as good. Selfless. Empathetic. Relentlessly positive. James.

From time to time it doesn’t hurt to consider, “How will be remembered?”

2) Life is a matter of perspective

A cliche, it certainly is.

But it also happens to be true.

A year of brutally hot days and freezing nights would test the best of us. Staying sane would be nearly impossible for the mentally strong, never mind the feeble minded. Throw in the prison cell, frequent yet menacingly unpredictable torture, and infrequent sustenance, and life gets really bleak, really quickly.

But only if you let it.

James Foley was captured by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in 2011 while on duty as a journalist in Libya. Before his capture, he had witnessed a fellow journalist being cut in two by heavy gunfire. Depression and doubt about his career and reasoning behind his lifestyle choices would be natural.

But James Foley was just not the kind of guy to let the dark side creep in, ever. Not during his detention in Libya, and not during his time under ISIS’ watch.

It’s true that life is full of depressing things. Some of us are more prone to dark thoughts than others, it’s biological. Seeing the bright side of things is not always easy to do. But it’s also not as difficult as you might think.

On Christmas, he came up with the idea to sit in a circle as each journalist shared what they valued in the other. This was a tiny way of brightening up what was easily the bleakest Christmas of each of their lives.

They scraped together a board, creating as accurate a world map as possible, and created an impromptu game of risk that would be the source of occasional conflict but also great entertainment that would have been otherwise nonexistent. It brought the journalists-of French, Danish, British, and other descents-closer.

They did daily jumping jack routines. They looked for the sunny side of life in its darkest shadows. And each of the imprisoned credits primarily their fallen brother James Foley for this light in the darkness.

James Foley can be an inspiration to all of us in this respect.

3) You can do what you love, but don’t always expect to get paid.

And if you really love it, the lack of pay won’t matter all that much.

I have worried about this myself. I love to write, but it’s reputation for financial security ain’t so hot.

James Foley became my idol and inspiration roughly 10 minutes into the documentary. I’d be lying if I said our shared characteristics were not a large part of that. And not the good kind of characteristics.

Chronic tardiness? Check. His family, like mine, told him gatherings were earlier than they really were to ensure he would come on time, or at least in the ballpark of on time.

Absent minded decisions which boggle the mind of family and friends? That’s me.

Dreams revolving around and the pursuit of a career which many deem unsteady and/or impractical? We’re both journalists, duh!

The main difference? His dream happened to involve documenting conflict. Which naturally means nearly constantly exposing oneself to the risks associated with armed conflicts: death, kidnapping, scenes of chaos and horror that can never be washed from the mind.

His brothers and sister got jobs, settled down, started their retirement funds.

His brother Michael stated-with a smile as wide as the room- that the only ding on his credit history was the loan he co-signed with Jim.

They didn’t get it. They told him to get his head out of his ass and grow up. Get a real job. Get serious.

But in the end, they understood. Jim’s legacy was never going to be one of a financial rock. He was not going to put on a suit and tie, go to the office, and raise a big, traditional family. At least not while he was young.

But that’s not what Jim cared about. He wanted to impact people with his personality. He wanted those he interacted with to remember him and his true nature, his innate need to help others, to document their plight.

In no way am I comparing myself to James Foley. I’m neither a fool nor delusional in my self-perception.

But it is nice-arguably necessary-to have a role model in your field in order to envision your dreams and to gauge your aspirations. James Foley became my inspiration and idol as a journalist. Not so much for the work he did itself, but for the way in which he went about producing his work.

The work was secondary, really. As was money. His concern for and interest in the people living in these war zones was foremost, and his video chronicles were merely a part of what he felt was his duty: to get the message of these people out, regardless of the immense risk to his life.

Your idol should be better than you. They should represent the pillars of what you aspire to be.

As a journalist, James Foley is that person to me. He did what he loved and people loved him for the way he did it. I hope to be able to objectively say this about myself when my days are over, but for now it is little more than hope.

4) Consider who cares for you

If you could criticize James Wright Foley for one thing, it is the hardship which he indirectly caused upon his family through his career choice, especially considering he was captured and negotiated for twice.

As much as he should be admired for doing what few others would dare to, he was aware of the strain and worry which he had caused his family during his first capture in Libya. Yet he chose to return to his job as a journalist in an even more dangerous region: Aleppo, Syria.

He felt a duty to the citizens of Syria who faced attacks from their own government, but it was his own family who suffered as a result of his life choices.

This is not to criticize Foley for pursuing the career that he loved and felt compelled to fulfill, but too often we do not realize the true impact our choices will have on those who love us, and those who know us.

We hear about it all the time with survivors of suicide: the parents, the kids, the friends. What seems to be the easy way out for one means a lifetime of heartache for others.

Seeing the effort and incessant worrying of James’ parents John and Diane is nothing short of heartbreaking, and their bewilderment at his decision to return to the Middle East after being captured once is absolutely understandable.

James knew what his parents went through. It ate him up. He considered this when considering his next career move. But ultimately, the potential pain and suffering of his family was not enough to keep him away from the front lines. And his family paid the price.

To be clear: I am not blaming James Foley for doing his job. Somebody has to do the job, and I would strongly argue his life was a worthwhile one and he harbored within himself abnormal levels of bravery.

But in our everyday lives, it is easy to consider ourselves and only ourselves when making a decision. In fact, it is only natural to think this way. We are self-centered beings.

When you being to make decisions with your loved ones in mind, choices get tougher. The easy thing to do no longer seems so easy. Thinking outside of ourselves is tough to do. And ultimately, like James, it might not even make a difference in our most important choices.

But thinking this way inevitably makes us better people, less selfish people. For this reason, always try to consider those who care.

5) Evil is real, and it cannot be reasoned with

When considering the ultimate fate of James Foley, there is no genre which his story fits into other than tragedy.

A beloved journalist, risking his life to better the situation of others by informing those around the world of their struggles. A son who never cared to speak of himself, only to enquire about the wellbeing of others.

A relentlessly positive man who was forced to “celebrate” his 40th birthday inside of an ISIS prison cell, absent old friends and family.

A man who had his head cut off for the sake of repulsive propaganda. Propaganda for what? Propaganda for evil.

If you are one of those people who thinks that a few jobs would deter these genocidal, raping maniacs known as ISIS from carrying out their sadistic agenda, I strongly urge you to reconsider. At the very least, watch this documentary. If you still believe this is the case afterward, kindly check yourself into the nearest insane asylum.

Whether through nature or experience, some people have long bypassed the parameters of human decency. They behead those who do not believe what they believe and unload gunfire upon innocents, taking the lives of as many people as possible.

They take human form: James Holmes. Osama bin Laden. Timothy McVeigh. Countless others.

But they are real, and they have no interest in anything but the misery of others who think unlike them. Others who have issue perceived slights and threats. This is how evil thinks. It is not rational. It cannot be reasoned with.

James Foley’s parents have been vocal about their belief that the American government did not do enough to free their son.

After all, 18 other journalists were released. Only Foley was murdered.

After all, the Obama administration’s advice to the Foley family was to keep silent on the matter. They abided by this until it became clear it served only to protect the government, eventually going public with the news of James’ capture.

But even with the apparent validity of these claims, good never stood a shot against ISIS.

When considering the members of ISIS, don’t think of them as humans so much as rabid dogs. They may have once had the capacity for love, trustworthiness, decency. But those capabilities are lost once one crosses the line into evil.

Not badness.

Not sociopathy.


It will continue on its destructive path until eradicated. And until then, the James Foleys of the world will not stand a chance. Neither do the Christians who die by the thousands at the bloody knives of ISIS.

Jim: The James Foley Story did nothing to shake my belief that evil is an entity which hides itself beneath the shroud of the human body, and until we recognize its existence we cannot claim to have an objective, realistic view of human, or evil nature.