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On Givens and Luxuries

August 20, 2014

At the risk of incurring bad luck by inaugurating a blog with sad news, this post is dedicated to Diane Foley. Up until this morning I knew nothing of Mrs. Foley, and even as I write this I know her only as the mother of US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded on Tuesday the 19th of August 2014 by members of the Islamic State in Syria. (Full story here)


James was abducted in November 2012 in Aleppo, where he had been reporting on the Syrian conflict for US publication GlobalPost and media outlets like AFP. Nearly two years after, he was executed, probably around the time most of us on this side of the Atlantic were settling in to bed last night. We went to sleep in a different world, one in which abstract words like the right to life, the free flow of information, and freedom of speech are givens. A world in which truth prevails and heroism is a luxury we reserve for caped men with superpowers.


A cape does not a hero make. Nor does dying beheaded or at gunpoint. Please do not misunderstand, this story is a tragedy. It is an affront to the most basic of human rights, one so banal we dismiss it as a given: life. But Foley did not have to die to be a hero.


Years ago a friend of mine was shot in the head by a stray bullet. The t-shirt he was wearing that day still haunts me: “Missing heroes to save the planet.” We have worn heroism out. We have trivialized and commercialized it to the point that it has come to mean absolutely nothing. And we have done the same to the value of human life and the notion of human dignity. We have made them disposable, a luxury we can do without.


Life is a right. Access to information is a right. Freedom of speech is a right. Taking them for granted here in our lawn-mowed decaf latte world mocks those elsewhere for whom these rights are luxuries. It mocks those who, like James Foley, fight and give up everything for them.


Our lives are not disposable. Our humanity is not disposable, and heroism is not a luxury. Heroism is Diane’s reaction to her son’s killing:


We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.


We implore the kidnappers to spare the lives of the remaining hostages. Like Jim, they are innocents. They have no control over American government policy in Iraq, Syria or anywhere in the world.


We thank Jim for all the joy he gave us. He was an extraordinary son, brother, journalist and person. Please respect our privacy in the days ahead as we mourn and cherish Jim.


Aristotle dismisses the notion of morality as unnatural to the original human condition, and claims that any moral or altruistic act history may witness is a posteriori. Hobbes believes we are all immoral and frees himself from any guilt that idea may bring by claiming that the natural condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone. With all the respect that is due to these two great men, I would like to disagree by pointing at the Foleys of this world. We do not have the right to debase morality, to debase heroism simply because it is not within easy reach. It is called the higher ground because we are called to rise to it. Life is not a given, and heroism is not a luxury.


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