A little over a year ago, Diane Foley lost her son Jim in the most public way possible: He was beheaded—on camera—by ISIS, and anyone with an internet connection could see it. Many of us did. He was a freelance journalist who worked in the most dangerous places on earth for no great reward in either money or fame, and while overseas, he was captured by ISIS and held captive for nearly two years.
During his captivity—a time when his parents feared for the worst and tried desperately to get him home—the U.S. government instructed Diane and her husband, John, to stay silent about what had happened lest the news jeopardize other American journalists in captivity. His manner of death, then, contained a brutal irony: It was the first time most Americans had heard of him.
But he still managed to make his mark, not just for how he died but also for how he lived. He was, as we have learned, a captive who showed himself to be inestimably superior to his captors. He was generous, he was loyal, he was optimistic, he was funny, he was brave, and as a result, he was the hostage other hostages relied on, even though he paid for his leadership by being tortured and ultimately killed. He was nothing less than an American hero.
After he died, his family started the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation to keep his memory alive by helping others who have borne a heavy burden during America's uncertain engagement with the chaos unleashed by Syrian civil war: freelance journalist hostages and their families.
Last week, Diane Foley talked to us about her effort to find purpose in her family's bitter experience and her son's suffering—and about the foundation's first public event: the Jim Foley 5K. It is being held on October 17 in Jim Foley's hometown, Rochester, New Hampshire, but also all over the world, by way of virtual participation open to runners who click on jamesfoleyfoundation.org.
"It's something Jim would have loved," she said. "He was full of fun and he loved getting people together for fun. So it's a really good way to remember our son, Jim."
Below is Diane's story in her own words. —Tom Junod
He loved to run. He loved to. He loved to play basketball—pick-up ball. He just was always looking for a good time. Jim was always out there…
It tends to be a silent crisis. As the family of an American hostage, we felt very alone. Because our government often counsels families to not go to the media. So many families have to endure this crisis without being able to tell close friends.
We did the best we could. But I feel part of the problem was the American public did not know this was going on. I mean, we didn't even know, as a family, that Jim was with three other Americans until the end of his captivity. And sometimes that is the best way to go. People get out of these horrible situations in different ways, and sometimes a quiet negotiation, a quiet investigation is the way to go. Every family is different. Personally, the Foley family, I feel—Diane Foley feels—that we should've been public from the beginning.
The American public had no way of having any idea what was going on—and certainly no way of applying any political pressure. If they are made more aware by the media of the number of Americans held captive around the world—even if the names of the individuals are not made public—I just think perhaps Americans might recognize the crisis it truly is.
Because of the problems in the news industry, there has been some abuse of freelance journalists. Particularly in conflict zones. The news organizations say, "Sure, if you get a good picture or image I'll take it," but they won't back any of the needed protection, housing, or anything so that the journalists can be safe while they're doing this story.
The government needs to know that this is a concern of the American people. If the public can't weigh in, that's a problem.
In France, they tend to be real advocates of their citizens. They love their journalists. And they put together an advocacy campaign, so they can get timelines on TVs every night and to remind the public that, Gee, our journalists are now missing 100 days—that kind of thing. Whereas here in the U. S., it's more complicated.
There are a huge number of journalists. As with any group, there's going to be the heroic, very ethical journalists. And then there's going to be the others, who are more callous and are competitive and just want their soundbite, if you will. We've met all kinds. Some of the families who went through what we went through really disliked the media very much, because they were treated very poorly. Because of the lower-level type of journalist, there's a kind of skepticism about the media. There's a lack of trust.
And as you know, a lot of times, old news is old news. And a lot of journalists understandably are looking for the new event, the new thing, and some of the media does tend to ignore the ongoing plight of families who continue to have this problem.
The media seemed to pick up the soundbite that, "Oh, now the family won't be prosecuted for paying ransom." Well, no family has ever been prosecuted for paying ransom. The FBI has always had a negotiating unit. And the policy is more no concessions to terrorists. It really never was a negotiation. The problem is more: how does an American family alone raise millions of dollars for a ransom? And is that the right thing to do, to pay money to these terrorists? I mean, these are the thorny issues.
The White House has been very supportive. They realize they failed us.
Because of Jim, Steven [Sotloff], Peter [Kassig], and Kayla [Mueller]'s sacrifice, we definitely were heard by the government. At the end of June of this year, President Obama did issue an executive order establishing a previously unknown fusion cell here in the U. S. government that actually has representation from FBI, CIA, State Department, Department of Justice, colocated together.
One of our issues is we have a huge bureaucracy, and in our situation, the FBI working our case didn't even know the State Department person working the case. It was horrible. And so this is also an unprecedented victory for the American people that now we have a fusion cell of people dedicated to bringing American captives home. That is their mission. Whereas with us, Jim was like the fortieth priority on their list, if you will. If he was a priority at all.
After 9/11, they put together this huge national counter-terrorism center. Well, they had no involvement at all. Here, this great entity who does work together on all fronts for our safety wasn't involved at all in trying to help these American hostages to get out from under the grip of these terrorists.
Can we learn as an American government to be shrewder, and to be willing to talk to enemies so we can better understand them and outsmart them? In Jim's situation, they outsmarted us in a big way. They were hugely ahead of the curve in terms of their ability to encrypt their messages and to use platforms like Twitter and such. They were very shrewd. And to me it's appalling that our government with all the brilliant people and assets we have could not be equally as shrewd and engage them in a shrewd way to capture them if you will. But instead there was all this miscommunication, and people—people's hands felt tied, so therefore we were left alone as an American family to attempt to deal with these terrorists. Which was ludicrous.
And a lot of that is cultures and little turf wars within our own government. But you know, we're people. People in government are people, right?
Unfortunately, that's why we need the sacrifices of courageous young Americans to point out the lack of coordination, lack of communication, that still persists.
The four Americans who were so brutally killed were all very idealistic, caring Americans. There's no question about it. All four of them shone a big light on the suffering of others around the world—a very important role, I believe, for humanity. Jim was all about helping us to understand another culture, what other people were enduring. He was always with the disadvantaged, with people who don't have freedom.
So Jim really challenges us. His legacy is a big one. And we're just a little piece of it. We just want Jim's compassion, courage, and commitment to live on.
For more information on how to participate in the Jim Foley 5k, and on the work of the Foley Foundation, visit jamesfoleyfoundation.org.