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Remembering James Foley: ‘His heart grew so big’

Journalist James Foley was killed by Islamic State militants.AP/file 2011

Even some of my most stoic friends have found themselves crying for people they don't know. On Friday, tears welled to the point that I had to go to a dark corner to pull myself together.

My early morning assignment was to watch and then condense the NBC interview with John and Diane Foley, parents of slain GlobalPost reporter James Foley. Even now, I struggle to find the right word for his death. "Slain" and "killed" seem too mild for the kind of medieval brutality that was unleashed on this poor soul. Many say he was executed, but executions often follow crimes, justified or not. James was slaughtered, but that word also diminishes what he has come to symbolize, both to us and to ISIS. He became the sole scapegoat for an unbridled madness of a group that is singular in its cruelty, because it is right now seeking to extinguish some of its own.


And what was James Foley during the months he was missing? "Victim" and "captive" don't feel sufficient. Collateral damage? He was more than a prisoner of war in a complex conflict that even analysis and historical perspective fail to fully illuminate. He was sacrificed, but to what and to whom? No one is appeased.

The best sacrifice was the one James made. He traded a privileged life for one of discomfort and danger. He did this for little money and no glory. He needed to witness, firsthand, the suffering of a people who could easily have remained outside of his and our awareness.

As a reporter, my most dreaded task is interviewing parents who have lost a child, especially when the loss is violent. I fully understand when reporters are met with anger or unanswered doors. In their shock and grief, John and Diane Foley welcomed reporters right away. Millions watched their "Today Show" interview, but not many heard what I did, the whisperings they exchanged while waiting for the cameras to go live. These "outtakes," for lack of a better word, are fair game. We have seen and heard plenty of blunders from politicians and actors who didn't realize their mics were "hot." I was stunned by the quiet conversation.


"He was just a normal kid," Diane gently whispered to her husband. "Remember? Jimmy was just this normal kid, but when he saw the suffering of the people in Syria, his heart grew so big.

His heart just grew so big."

That's when I lost it.

The Foleys are clearly people of faith, and perhaps there is something more that guides them on with such grace and dignity in the face of their son's slaughter. Whatever it is, I wish I had it. I wish we all had it, as our nation's anger boils.

Back in the early '90s, as an overly confident, overly adventurous student, I embarked on a trip that would be impossible to take today. Part of my journey took me through northern Pakistan along the Afghanistan border. The area was still recovering from the Soviet conflict, and even though it would be several years before fundamentalism would take hold, I wore a veil out of respect and safety. Why take chances?

I remember the most breathtaking mountain ranges, the gorgeous eyes and generous warmth of the local people. One day, my friend and I boarded a public lorry. Again, out of respect, we segregated into the men's and women's sections. I was daydreaming and looking out the window when a man suddenly reached over and grabbed my leg. Even though I was wearing a long skirt, I nearly convulsed from the contact. I swatted him away with a hand that bore a fake wedding ring, and I gave him a seething look while saying he had offended both me and our God.


Later, I asked local friends why that man felt he could grab me? After all, Islamic rule instructs men to be pious. They explained that the wealthy men outwardly observed a separation from women, but in reality, many went to Thailand for prostitutes. "So you see," my friend said, "They see all Asians as whores." Initially I laughed, but then I started to resent the men who leered at me, making me shiver even under my long, hot clothes and veil. That resentment turned into mild anger, which then turned into hatred. I admit it. I started hating the men who regarded me with such disrespect. I felt misunderstood, victimized and threatened.

I recall these feelings as I listen to Diane Foley. What mother could have more pain, losing a son like this and to witness his unspeakable suffering? She may not even get his desecrated body back. Yet all she speaks of is love. The love they have for their son and the love he had for the people he was committed to helping. The best I can do is to try to hate his killers a little less right now. Maybe that’s a first small triumph against terrorism.

Janet Wu is a reporter/anchor for WHDH-TV.