Opinion

Let’s honor Kayla Mueller– and other women leaders during the war on terror

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Millions of Americans wept yesterday hearing passages from the last letter of Kayla Mueller to her family from captivity in Syria. In the depths of her suffering, she worried more about her family back in Arizona.

If you could say I have “suffered” at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else.. + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall. I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another.

If there is an upside to Kayla’s awful death it is that her family is already sharing her big spirit with the rest of us; her family is responding to Kayla’s call. No doubt her work of trying to heal the division between the United States and the Arab world will continue long after her premature death.

For me, this is a time to honor great American women who have done as Kayla did: women who responded to the bombs and drones and militant speeches of the war on terror by putting their bodies on the line for principles of understanding and compassion and respect. When I read Kayla’s words and see her picture, I see the faces of several women role models in the last few years.

It is not that men didn’t also guide us during the great war on terror. But those men were typically reporters or experts or writers. Many derived some type of status from their work. Of course many women also derived status, as well they should; but the women I think of today embodied traditional qualities of selflessness and empathy; they felt called by suffering to try and deal with the underlying causes of conflict. And they are leaders.

When I think of why I left the mainstream media after the Iraq War, the symbolic moment came when Jodie Evans of Code Pink ripped off her dress to reveal a pink slip covered with war crimes charges at George Bush’s speech to the Republican Convention in New York in 2004. Evans was dragged out of the hall right past the press section. I sat there riveted by Evans’s bravery. Her heels came flying off as they manhandled her right past us, but all the bigtime reporters and editors kept their eyes on George Bush. I remember feeling stupid and feckless next to this woman who had put her body down.

I went to Syria in 2006 at the invitation of my wife’s cousin who had gone over there to learn Arabic. Betsy was inspired by 9/11 to try and see things from the Arab point of view. She met us at the Damascus airport wearing a Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, uniform — camel hair coat and plaid scarf — and as I hung out with her and her American friends, most of them women, I met a Palestinian refugee for the first time in my life and learned that he regarded Israel as a landgrab. Today my wife’s cousin’s work continues, helping refugees acclimatize in the United States.

When I came home in 2006, I read the diaries of Rachel Corrie for the first time– a manuscript lent to me by Jen Marlowe, who is still helping Gaza — and felt awed by the 23-year-old’s clarity and focus, when I was already 50. This website began then; and Rachel’s spirit infused it.

I went to the Jordan Valley first at the invitation of Morgan Bach, a humanitarian volunteer from Washington state.

I went to Gaza first at the invitation of Felice Gelman and Dorothy Zellner– Dorothy who started out 51 years ago in SNCC. Our group was almost all women. It was led by Medea Benjamin, who has been standing up against warriors for 40 years. In Gaza we had an evening with three young volunteers for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). Two of them were women, one the inspiring Eva Bartlett.

There we visited the school named after Rachel Corrie, the brave humanitarian and ISM volunteer from Olympia who gave her life in 2003 to try and keep Palestinians from being thrown out of their homes.

And of course, Kayla Mueller worked for ISM too. If you read her writings, you see that she pitied others, not herself– and was moved to act by others’ suffering. She knew that compassion means nothing if you don’t act on it:

This really is my life’s work, to go where there is suffering. I suppose, like us all, I’m learning how to deal with the suffering of the world inside myself… to deal with my own pain and most importantly to still have the ability to be proactive.

You can read Kayla’s words on Palestine here. Already that service has become a flashpoint. The NPR piece on Mueller today left Palestine out, while listing her other accomplishments. The neoconservatives are smearing her for her views on Israel.

But the most grotesque thing about the aftermath of Kayla’s death is that people are using it as a pretext to keep bombing. Why don’t we bomb the hell out of them? Chris Matthews asked repeatedly last night in his demagogue mode, as if that will cure anything. Her name is prominent in the president’s request today for the Authorization to Use Military Force against the Islamic state.

I am sure Kayla Mueller would not want that. She would likely regard the outpouring of grief over her death as an opportunity for Americans to follow in her footsteps and learn about the Arab world, learn about Muslims and Palestinians as fellow human beings. As we are all now discovering, Kayla Mueller was wise and loving. I’m going to honor her by heeding her words, trying to learn more about the other in this brutalized clash of worlds. As she wrote four years ago at 22:

“I believe in a collective consciousness… I believe that if we can’t handle learning about the darkest places of our world, they will turn into the darkest places in us. If we know or we don’t, if we do something or we don’t, either way it will affect us.”

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Thank you, Phil, for beautifully honoring these wise people whose work and words will keep teaching us how to love and help.

Thanks, Phil. Thanks to all who can find a pathway from love and compassion to action.

The kindest of the hasbarists are spilling this as an “idealistic” (i.e. stupid) American woman who might be alive today if she’d only “heard both sides” or understood “nuance” or realized how “complicated” the situation is. It’s either that or admit that she knew exactly what she was doing and… Read more »

Phil … your soulful , heartfelt tribute to Kayla Mueller has put me to shame. I have written very harsh words addressed to Ms. Schlussel who was quoted using very derogatory, smearing terms towards Kayla and her life’s work. I was in tears , reading her inspiring blog, and could… Read more »

A beautiful piece, Phil.