Journalist's professor at Marquette says desire to expose injustices drove him.
The ISIS captors who decapitated James Foley saw him as a political pawn.
Bill Thorn saw him as a “man for others.”
Thorn, associate professor of journalism at Marquette University, was chairman of the journalism department when Foley was a student at the Jesuit school.
Foley worked in Iraq and Afghanistan as a freelancer for major media outlets such as Agence France-Press and GlobalPost. He had been captured once before, in Libya in 2011, where he was held by Moammar Gadhafi loyalists for 44 days and released, according to USA Today.
This time he was captured, however, he didn't make it home. ISIS not only executed him somewhere in Syria, they made a video of it and tried to get it to go viral.
“After he had been released from prison in Libya, he came back to Marquette to talk to the students,” Thorn recalled in a phone interview today. “He talked about the importance of journalism and dealing with the kinds of poverty and the kinds of tragedies that humans were suffering in Libya because he documented that stuff…. That’s probably why he got arrested and jailed in Libya.”
His mission as a reporter was tied to revelations he’d had while at Marquette, where he majored in history and Spanish but also took a course in journalism.
“He started to get involved in some of the social justice activities that students engage in here and which we encourage,” his professor recalled. “And he said he didn’t realize how privileged his life was until he started working with the poor—that he felt like he had missed out on a whole part of the world and needed to correct things. That’s what got him motivated."
Thorn said Marquette has a lot of programs where students can put their Christian charity into practice, such as teaching reading after school to immigrant children and serving in meal programs. "It’s all part of that Jesuit push to be a man for others."
He recalled that Foley served on the Indian reservation in Rosebud, S.D., where the Jesuits have a big presence.
Foley, he said, “wanted to go where people were suffering and tell the story in the hopes of changing things.”
When the young man came back to campus in 2011, he talked about discovering in prison the value of praying the Rosary. “He found a lot of consolation in it,” Thorn said. “He said ‘I became a man of prayer when I was in prison.’”
In the wake of the gruesome killing, which became public Tuesday, a Catholic priest in Rochester, New Hampshire, visited Foley's family. Father Paul Gousse of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary church declined to speak with reporters after visiting with Foley’s parents, who are active parishioners. The journalist’s mother, Diane Foley, posted a Facebook message pleading with Islamic kidnappers to spare another hostage. “We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us,” she wrote.
She also said she is praying for other hostages being held by the Sunni-dominated terror group, and described her son's slaying as "just evil," AP reported.
Foley, 40, was seized by forces of the Islamic State in Syria last November. He had been held captive previously in Libya in 2011, but was released on that occasion after 45 days. Foley wrote about that experience in the alumni magazine of Marquette University, his alma mater, recalling how he had prayed the Rosary during his captivity.
Thorn laments Foley's execution, which he said “looks like international extortion”—a case where the perpetrators knew that killing a journalist is a surefire way of getting a lot of attention.
“The campus is basically in mourning,” he said. A memorial prayer service is planned for next Tuesday.
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia's English edition.