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Kayla Mueller’s family is politicizing her death, and that’s wrong

Roger-Rabbit-icon1One always has to be careful not to judge a grieving family; we can’t really hold people responsible for what they say after losing a loved one. This is especially true in cases involving American military personnel or hostages.

Our government’s stated policy is not to pay ransom for hostages. Many other governments take the same position. There are good reasons for this. Paying off kidnappers encourages more kidnapping. Also, once you indicate a willingness to meet ransom demands, the demands tend to escalate. (“If they’ll pay $1 million, maybe they’ll pay $10 million?”) The preferred option is to rescue the hostage(s) with police or military action.

But, as with all things in life, it’s not cut-and-dried and there are gray areas. A rescue operation may not work, or cost more lives, and like other countries we’ve sometimes swapped spies and prisoners with our adversaries. There’s a difference between dealing with other governments, and dealing with terrorists or criminals, which has to be taken into consideration.

Also weighing on governmental decision-making is the hostage’s value and how the hostage got into that situation. It’s probably safe to say that our government, right or wrong, would invest more in retrieving a CIA agent who fell into enemy hands than an ordinary tourist kidnapped by terrorists or insurgents, especially if that tourist ignored State Department warnings and deliberately went into a high-danger area.

American citizens are scattered all over the world. Some are tourists, others missionaries, and others humanitarian workers. Some are spies, journalists, or diplomats. There are all sorts of reasons for Americans to go abroad, and many do, sometimes into harm’s way.

Kayla Mueller was an “international aid worker” who was captured “after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria, which she was allegedly was visiting with her Syrian boyfriend,” according to CBS News. Syria is the scene of a (a) raging civil war among multiple factions, and (b) powerful insurgency by ISIS, which has made a point of gruesomely killing captives. Syria currently comprises some of the most dangerous real estate on the planet.

I’m not saying Mueller shouldn’t have gone there. Nor am I saying our government should have abandoned her to her eventual fate. For all I know, it didn’t. We don’t necessarily know what rescue attempts were planned or made, or what negotiations occurred. We don’t even know how she was killed. ISIS claims she died in a Jordanian airstrike, which is perfectly possible and plausible. Explosions aren’t choosy; they blow apart everyone present at a given location, innocent and guilty alike.

Mueller’s family is upset that she’s dead. We can, and should, sympathize with them in their grief. For whatever reason she went over there, and however she died, her loss is a heart-wrenching tragedy. No doubt her family is emotionally overwhelmed. We don’t want to be harsh in judging what comes out of their mouths.

It’s perfectly natural to blame the government for not plucking your loved one from the grasp of pirates, terrorists, or insurgents. We all want to believe that if we, or someone we love, fell into evil hands our government would come to the rescue. That’s a big part of what governments are for, and one of their basic jobs.

But please, don’t exploit your sister’s death for crass political gain:

“The brother of an American woman who was killed after spending months as a hostage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) says Kayla Mueller’s situation worsened after the government traded five Taliban commanders for a captive U.S. soldier. … ‘That made the whole situation worse because that’s when the demands got greater,’ he said. ‘They got larger. They realized that they had something.’ … The young woman’s father, Carl Mueller, said that the United States’ willingness to swap for Bergdahl but not pay ransom or allow ransom to be paid for his daughter ‘was pretty hard to take. I actually asked the president that question when we were in the White House,’ Carl Mueller said without elaborating. … Some U.S. lawmakers were outraged by the exchange of five Taliban commanders held at the Guantanamo Bay prison for Bergdahl ….” (Quoted from CBS News)

Yeah, Republican lawmakers, who were trying to gin up an election issue last fall, after Benghazi blew up in their faces.

The Bergdahl prisoner swap was controversial, mainly to rightwingers who indulged in assumptions of guilt and wanted to lynch the guy without bothering with a trial, but presidents can’t make decisions that way. President Obama had to weigh the implications of leaving an American soldier in enemy hands against the costs of bringing him home. It would’ve been totally inappropriate to prejudge Bergdahl’s guilt or innocence in making that decision. The thing to do was get him back, then let the military justice system deal with his behavior.

If President Obama had decided to leave Bergdahl in the Taliban’s hands, he would’ve been criticized for that, too. As President Carter once said, “In this job, you get criticized no matter what you do.” Easy problems don’t go to the president’s desk; he gets the tough decisions that have no attractive options. The easier decisions are made at lower levels. One of the reasons he didn’t is because U.S. intelligence information indicated Bergdahl’s health was deteriorating and there might not be another opportunity to bring him home alive.

A story from New York Daily News does indicate there were negotiations for Mueller:

“The family of … Kayla Mueller said negotiations to free her collapsed after the U.S. agreed to a controversial prisoner swap for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. And they argued the U.S. government ‘waited too long’ to stage a rescue attempt …. The terrorist group initially asked for $6.2 million to release Mueller, 26, who was taken captive by Islamic State militants in August 2013.” But after the Bergdahl swap, “They realized that, ‘Well, if they’re gonna let five people go for one person, why don’t they do this? Or why don’t they do that?'”

In fact, the U.S. government did attempt a rescue of Mueller and other Western hostages last summer, but the U.S. commandos didn’t find them in that raid. Mueller’s family is criticizing the Obama administration for “waiting too long” to send the commandos, but it takes time to assess intelligence and plan an operation. It takes captors only minutes to move captives somewhere else.

And what would they tell Bergdahl’s family, if we put them in a room together? That their son should have been sacrificed to save the Muellers’ daughter? Does this tragic incident come down to her family resenting that he was saved and she wasn’t? If that’s what this, what does that say about them?

That’s best left unaddressed, because as I said at the beginning of this article, we ought to be very cautious about judging people overcome with grief. But I think they should have left Bergdahl out of this, because going on TV talk shows to stir that pot makes themRoger-Rabbit-icon1 look like they’re playing politics with the loss of their family member.


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