We all have stories. Some that were given to us, and some we seek out. Some we want to tell, some we may not. But would you die to tell your story? Would you pursue your story into the deepest darkness? How far would you be willing to go? Two American reporters, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, like a significant number of reporters before them, paid the ultimate price.
Who were these men that gave their lives for their stories? What was it that they were trying so hard to say? As horrified and enraged by their deaths as I am, there is also fascination, and a certain reverence, for artists who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to tell their stories to the world.
James Foley, a New Hampshire native, began his career as a teacher. He participated in Teach for America in Chicago. He became a photojournalist, working in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. His mission: Show the true story of what was happening on the ground in those war-torn countries so different from our own. He was kidnapped twice. First in Libya, from which he was later released. At the time he stated, "I believe front line journalism is important [without it] we can't tell the world how bad it might be." (James Foley (May 27, 2011). "Global Post journalist James Foley talks about being captured in Libya".Boston Globe. Retrieved August 24, 2014.) A practicing Catholic, James shared that he relied on prayer to endure his captivity.
After his release, Foley returned home to thank those who prayed for him. He returned to the Middle East to cover the Syrian Civil War. He was kidnapped again as he left an internet cafe in Northwestern Syria. His captors demanded a ransom of 100 million Euros (approximately 132 million U.S. dollars) for his release. United States special forces attempted to rescue Foley, but they failed when it was discovered that he had been moved. His parents tried to raise the ransom, but were, understandably, unsuccessful.
On August 19, 2014, a video was posted to YouTube by ISIS showed the beheading of Foley, along with a warning that another journalist in captivity; Steven Sotloff, would also be executed if the U.S. did not concede to the group's demands. And what were these demands? In the words of the executioner, "I'm back, Obama, and I'm back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings and on Mosul Dam, despite our serious warnings. So just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people," ("IS jihadi group beheads US journalist Steven Sotloff". Big News Network.com. 2 September 2014. Retrieved 3 September 2014.)
Steven Sotloff was born in Florida to Holocaust survivors. He studied journalism and began reporting out of Yemen. He traveled around the middle east covering stories on Al-Qaeda. Like Foley, he was committed to revealing the horrors of war to the world. His editor at The Media Line, Felice Friedson, said Sotloff was, "one of the most courageous, talented and insightful journalists that I have met." [Omer Benjakob (September 3, 2014). "'Steven Sotloff was courageous journalist, warned of jihadi threat'". Retrieved September 3, 2014.]
On August 4, 2013, Sotloff was kidnapped shortly after crossing into Syria from the Turkey border. His family and the United States government worked to achieve his release, albeit unsuccessfully. On September 2, 2014, a video was posted of his execution in the same manner as Foley's. The executioner warned that Briton David Cawthorne Haines, a former security guard for Nonviolent Peaceforce, also in ISIS custody, will be next.
I am struggling to understand these killings. My heart goes out to the families of these men. I can only imagine the agony their loved ones went through, and which the families must now endure. I try to understand a world in which killing these men makes sense, the perspective of the perpetrators. I grasp for common ground with individuals who refuse education to females, marry their preteen daughters away for money, cover the heads of female mannequins with black hoods, and wage war on anyone who does not subscribe to their belief system.
I am grateful for the courage and skill of the reporters who tell the stories that need to be told. These stories come from around the world, and around the block. They are as public as internet executions; and as private as the keyhole voyeurism of an intimate telling, or our own personal secrets yet untold. I don't always understand the villains or why they play their roles in our experience. In truth, I want to shake my fist and scream at the sky for the injustice of every person's suffering. Even--no, especially, the suffering of those who commit atrocities. It is my belief that on some level every perpetrator has been perpetrated against, even those that appear to be pure evil.
There is a story writ larger than we know. A web woven by the greatest storyteller of all, the One who made us. Some faiths contend that this creator sacrifices itself to tell the story of our existence. Christians believe that Jesus paid humanity's ransom to God. Shiva, the Hindu god, is paradoxically both destroyer and restorer; saving us by drinking the poisonous seas intended to drown humankind. Navajo legend credits the world's chaos to Coyote, the Trickster.
Whatever the ultimate story and its meaning, in the end, we all die to tell our part of the tale. I pray that I will speak my truth and meet my destiny with the same commitment and courage that Foley and Sotloff did.
Note: Wikipedia was used as a source for this blog, specifics noted following quotes.