By Rowan Kane-
Death bookends Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. The novel begins with the protagonist, Meursault, finding out that his mother has died, today or maybe yesterday, he doesn’t know. The story ends with the death of Meursault, by guillotine execution at the hands of the authorities in French Algeria, where the writer himself also called home. Meursault, as an articulation of Camus’s absurd existentialism, eventually accepts his fate with the conclusion that his life means little to the universe. He had no family or friends to speak of, he had a lover but his only real interest in her was sexual and so he could die with the assumption that nothing would really change were he to simply disappear.
James Foley was accorded no such luxury. The photojournalist who was beheaded recently by a British member of the Islamic State went to his execution knowing full well that his family would mourn him, that his country would grow angered and that justice and/or retribution, however unlikely, would be sought. Since the video that captured his death was presumably scripted, he also went to his death knowing exactly when it was coming, a feeling few of us will ever know. In the video, he first reads a statement denouncing the United States and imploring his country and his brother, a US Air Force captain, to stop the bombing of the Islamic State, while acknowledging that it was too late for him. We’ll never know how much of these sentiments were true, but what is undeniable is that as the executioner read his own statement, James Foley could count down the words and know that he was going to die.
I cannot help but place myself in James Foley’s shoes. I never met him or knew about him, his work or his story. I think the closest I came to him is exchanging a few direct messages on Twitter with one of his friends, Matthew Van Dyke, a fellow journalist who, like Foley, was imprisoned in Libya before heading to Syria to document the war and the suffering of the population there. Yet I feel a vague but macabre familiarity with how Foley must had felt, kneeling in the sand knowing his demise grew closer with every breath he took and every word from his executioner.
What were his last thoughts? His family? His home? The last time he made love? Was he hot and thirsty from the sun or oblivious to all corporeal senses? Did he think about his regrets or about the mistakes he had made? I asked myself these questions as I sat with my dog on my front yard on a beautiful summer evening in New England, maybe just the kind of evening Foley enjoyed and maybe as he closed his eyes for the last time he felt a breeze on his face and he was transported home to New Hampshire. I would like to think that and I would like to believe that the same would happen to me.
This wasn’t the first time I’d felt that vague familiarity with execution. I’ve felt it somewhat regularly since reading L’Étranger as a high school student but Foley’s death struck a deeper chord. Today, as far as I remember, is the first time I’ve ever told anyone about this macabre sentiment and I told it to someone I share my hopes and dreams with. She told me “I’d rather die for justice and humanity than die on my luxury bed without saying anything to the world… This is real stuff. We must do something, start from anywhere. And we’re doing it.” James Foley lived up to those words. I hope I can as well.