What My Friend Jim Foley Taught Me to Question
TRNN’s Jessica Desvarieux pays tribute to the life of her friend and colleague Jim Foley, who was executed by ISIS while covering the Syrian civil war
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
By now you’ve all seen the news. Forty-year-old journalist James Foley was beheaded in Syria by the extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The video has been linked on every major news site. But to tell you the truth, I can’t even stomach to read the headlines, because what a headline can never capture is the character of a person.
Jim and I both attended Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism in 2007. We sat across from each other in the D.C. bureau, both covering national security. He called me “JD”, and he was just “Jim” to me. We shared a love of hip hop, and you could always catch Jim dropping a beat in the halls. He was so incredibly funny. I remember one school project which was meant to help us develop our camera skills.
JAMES FOLEY (IN CHARACTER): Hello. This is Jim Foley.
DESVARIEUX: We decided to shoot a parody of The Office. Fittingly, Jim played the character with his namesake. And I can just remember us cracking up repeatedly as we tried to put together this one scene. And then we finally nailed it.
DESVARIEUX (VOICEOVER): Tune in next week for more of The Office.
DESVARIEUX (ON CAMERA): After graduation, we both went abroad. I went to Egypt, and he went to Afghanistan and then Libya. That’s where he was in prison for 41 days while covering the 2011 Libyan Revolution. There was a massive campaign waged to bring Jim home, and the good news was that it worked and he did make it home.
He went back to Northwestern to speak, and I got a chance to see my friend again for what I didn’t know then would be the last time. We were all excited to catch up, and he told me of his plans to go to Syria, where the situation was escalating. It was dangerous, especially for foreign journalists, who were banned from covering Syria by Syrian President Bashar Assad. But Jim wanted to speak to the people. He wanted to be there so we could get a sense of what’s really going on.
Despite this ongoing media blackout, what we do know is that the Syrian Civil War may be the worst humanitarian crisis so far this century. According to the UN, it’s left more than 170,000 people dead and has displaced 9 million civilians.
In the wake of Jim’s death, I’ve been reflecting on all of this. But one question still stays with me: what created the conditions on the ground for this kind of fanaticism to flourish? What role do we as Americans play in all of this? Our whole post-World War II politics point to examples of us supporting extremists, starting with Roosevelt backing Saudi King Ibn Saud. Then there was also the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the ’80s, and more recently the support of jihadists in Syria, which have captured parts of Iraq. Two of our most important allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have used jihadist groups as centerpieces of their own foreign policy. It’s been reported repeatedly that both countries have provided arms directly to extremists. And there are reports, like this one from The New York Times, which expose how the CIA played an instrumental role in shopping for weapons and choosing which rebel groups would get them.
We opened up a Pandora’s box in the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, followed with the years of ongoing sectarian violence which has left half a million people dead from war-related causes, according to a recent study. The U.S. has invaded and supported the overthrow of governments, which tilled the soil for fanaticism. After creating this power vacuum, groups like the Islamic State have risen to fill it. And that’s the part of the story that needs to be told.
Jim was chasing that story and many others like it when he headed to Syria. He wanted to bear witness to this destruction and share with the world the Syrian people’s stories. He can tell you the reason why he chose to go better than anyone else can. So here’s Jim in his own words at Medill in 2011.
Jim, my friend, you will be missed.
JAMES FOLEY, REPORTER, GLOBALPOST: I talked to my mom once. I had one phone call, and that was all I was praying for. You know, Clare and I, all we are praying for was just let us talk to our moms, just let our moms know–it sounds funny, but it’s not–just let our moms know that we’re okay, that we’re alive, that physically I’m okay. You know, physically I’m fine. I’m being fed. We were beaten once, tortured never. Physically I’m okay. There’s some humanity in these guards. You know? The system is inhumane, but the humanity is in these people.
We were in a general Libyan population, immediately embraced by Libyan political prisoners. They saw us as trying to tell their story. Immediately embraced by these Libyan political prisoners, from age 24 to 50s, 60s, sending text messages making jokes about Gaddafi. Real criminals, you know? Waving the rebel flag. An amazing sense of community that literally helped us.
But I talked to my mom on the phone. Not only did I call her, they let me call her, but she picked up the phone. You know. I only know one number, my family’s phone number. My mom actually picked it up. It was like, that was a miracle, man. That was God right there, you know? And that was the day before Easter, and my mom’s very Catholic. It meant a lot.
I mean, and a lot of my friends from Marquette are very Catholic. And these guys were–. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what people were doing for me. No idea. You know, you’re in a cell. It’s like you’re in a submarine, and you can only see out these bars, and you’re just trying to stay sane through prayer and, you know, cigarettes, basically. But I said, Mom, can’t you feel me praying to you that I’m okay? She said, Jim, can’t you feel all your friends, all the people praying for you? You know, they’re having prayer vigils at Marquette. And I said, I guess I can. I guess I can feel that.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.