Carl Mueller, expressing a view of Syria held by a large proportion (probably the majority) of Americans, told his daughter, “this is not our war; these are not our people.”
His daughter, Kayla, however, clearly had a view of humanity unfractured by the divisions of “us” and “them.”
As Duke Ellington once responded when asked about his music in relation to “his people”: “the people — that’s the better word — the people rather than my people, because the people are my people.”
There is a sense in which the view that we need to take care of our own people seems like an issue of simple practicality and yet this practicality is almost always built on false constructions of inclusion. Within each boundary of exclusion yet more forms of exclusion are to be found.
If Kayla Mueller had put America first, she would never have entered Syria. Instead, she put others first and lived her faith.
Immediately prior to the broadcast of ABC’s 20/20 report, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières issued a statement which says in part:
After seeing reports saying that Kayla was an MSF employee, we released a statement that said she was not. It was a terse statement that was insensitive given the gravity of the events, the lives involved, and the family’s grief. For that, too, MSF has apologized to the Muellers in person, at their home in Arizona, an apology which we repeated in interviews with ABC and repeat again here.
Apologies have their limitations, however, particularly in the face of such anguish and considerations of what might have been. As an organization that works in conflict zones and has had several of our colleagues and friends killed while trying to provide emergency assistance, we know this all too well.
In this instance, the Muellers asked MSF to actively intervene to help achieve Kayla’s release and we did not do so. There are several reasons for this:
The risks go beyond any one location. If MSF were generally considered by would-be abductors to be a negotiator of release for non-MSF staff, there is no doubt that this would increase the risk levels in many locations, put our field staff, medical projects, and patients in danger, and possibly force us to close projects where needs are often acute. It would limit MSF’s ability to provide life-saving care to people caught in dangerous conflicts.
Furthermore, MSF is an emergency medical organization. We are not hostage negotiators. If staff members get abducted, we deputize senior MSF staff members to concentrate fully on working towards their release. This comes with significant concerns for the people involved; some of the people who worked to secure the release of the MSF staff members in Syria put themselves at great risk in so doing.
There is risk inherent in humanitarian work in conflict, but we rely on people who are willing to take those risks to help us reach people in need around the world. It’s awful to know that people like Kayla Mueller, who carried a very similar spirit into the world, died during efforts to reach some of those same people.