Executed journalist James Foley was fearless in his quest to advance justice in the world, and his courage inspired many students at his alma mater, a professor at his former university reflected.
“We are a campus in mourning. He was a bright light,” Marquette University journalism professor William Thorn told CNA Aug. 21.
The professor said Foley was “offended by social injustice, poverty, and related problems.”
“He thought that his video documentaries on the problems that these people faced in war-torn areas, the injustices, would lead to change. That was his whole agenda. He wanted to be a journalist to change the world,” Thorn said.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – known as ISIS or ISIL – on Aug. 19 released a video titled “A Message to America” showing Foley’s beheading by a member of the militant group. The group said the execution was in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against its military insurgency, which has killed religious minorities and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.
Foley, a resident of New Hampshire, was 40 years old. He had been in Syria reporting on its civil war when he was kidnapped by armed militants in November 2012.
He was a 1996 graduate of Wisconsin’s Marquette University, run by the Society of Jesus. He returned to the university in 2011 to speak about his 44-day imprisonment in Libya by loyalists to Muammar Gaddafi.
Foley’s appearance at Marquette was “electric,” Thorn recalled.
“He was quite the celebrity on campus because we had had prayer vigils when he was held prisoner in Libya,” the professor explained.
“He was a friendly, cheerful guy, a friend to everybody he met,” Thorn continued. “But he came back a bit different. He was much more reflective. He had this internal confidence in what he was doing.”
“He said that being imprisoned in Libya made him a man of prayer. That was where he learned the value of saying the rosary, on his knuckles, because he didn’t have beads.”
Thorn said students peppered Foley with questions: “What was it like in prison? How did you survive? Why do you want to go back? Why should we care?”
“He kept talking about the injustice he saw, and the ability of a journalist to make a difference,” Thorn said.
“He was unafraid,” the professor recalled. “His heart went out to the people who were suffering in the villages, who were getting bombed out or shelled out, who didn’t have food or clean water. That was his focus.”
“He was right there in the middle of it. And unafraid. That’s one of the things that his former student friends have said. The guy just had no fear.”
“He was motivated to do the right thing. For him, that was exposing the problems that came from, in Libya, the civil war that people were suffering there. I think it was the same in Syria.”
The Marquette professor said that as a student, Foley followed the advice of the university leadership to become involved in social justice work, “whether it is a meal program or tutoring immigrant kids.”
Foley taught at a Milwaukee public middle school down the block from Marquette. He worked on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota and in Mississippi though Jesuit programs.
“He said, ‘I never realized how privileged I was until I got involved in those activities. Then I decided to do something about it’,” Thorn recounted.
“He said Marquette changed him. When he came back, he told the students that they could expect to do a lot of hard work, that this was not an easy life, but they could make a big difference in the world.”
Thorn said a teacher at Marquette asked Foley, “Are you sure you want to go back and risk your life?”
According to Thorn, Foley replied “I’m strong, I don’t worry about it.”
“It was Marquette that really strengthened his faith,” continued Thorn, his voice cracking with sadness. “And it was in prayer that he found confidence and was able to survive the prison. He wasn’t really worried about going back.”
The professor said Foley’s death was “brutal” and “shouldn’t have happened.”
“He was a pawn in an international political ploy. Those Jihadists know their media. They know how to get attention. I think they used him,” Thorn said.
“They got the attention that they wanted. Their goal, of course, is to put pressure on Obama to stop the bombings, and to prove that they are powerful.”
The militant group is believed to be holding captive at least one other American journalist and two Italian reporters.
Marquette University will host a prayer vigil for Foley at 6 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Chapel of the Holy Family at the Alumni Union building.
Thorn said Foley’s death has “cast a pall” over the start of the new school year, and “has just dominated all the conversations.” The students who heard Foley as freshmen in 2011 are now seniors.
The professor explained that Foley’s life of service is an example of how Marquette hopes its students will become involved in social ministry and “become a man for others.”
Foley spoke of his Libyan imprisonment and his gratitude for prayer in a fall 2011 letter in Marquette Magazine.
“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us,” the journalist wrote. “It didn't make sense, but faith did.”
Thorn said he believes Foley’s family is doing well, despite facing unimaginable pain. “They understand that he is now in eternal life. They are grieving their loss, as the university is.”
The journalist’s parents, John and Diane Foley, voiced their pride in their son and gratitude for his life in an Aug. 20 press conference.
“It's not difficult to find solace in this point in time” John said. “We know he is in God's hands, and we know he’s done God’s work.”
“Jim would never want us to hate or be bitter. We’re praying for the strength to love like he did,” Diane stated.