Kayla Mueller Is Not Our Helen Of Troy

Kayla Mueller Is Not Our Helen Of Troy

The best way to memorialize kidnapped and murdered American aid worker Kayla Mueller is not by going to war. It’s by following her example.
Steele Brand
By

We recently learned the tragic story of Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who was kidnapped and killed as a captive of ISIS. At age 26, Kayla had a remarkable record of humanitarianism. She traveled the world on behalf of relief efforts in India, Israel, Turkey, and her home state of Arizona.

In the wake of her death, a number of politicians called for an escalation of U.S. military force in the region. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul are among those recommending additional war powers to avenge Mueller’s death. Even the usually reluctant President Obama asked Congress for an updated war authorization that mentioned Mueller by name, although Sen. John McCain complained that the resolution wasn’t strong enough.

Kayla was killed in the no-man’s land of northern Iraq and Syria, where politics have vacillated between tyranny and anarchy in recent years. Politicians near and far have been doing what they can to keep or restore order there. Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad relied on absolutism. George Bush tried to enforce a democratic peace. Barack Obama quickly reversed this policy and removed American forces, creating a vacuum that precipitated ISIS’s growth.

Hussein and Assad may have been homegrown tyrants, but the former’s removal and the latter’s setbacks have invited anarchy. Neighboring powers like King Abdullah in Jordan and the volatile Egyptian government are now intervening against ISIS and its affiliates because the anarchy is expanding, both physically and psychologically. Each of these political leaders has attempted to enforce his own version of justice, and some have obviously been better than others. Yet none has found a suitable answer for the anarchy that reigns in ISIS-controlled areas. But, in her own small way, Mueller did.

The Women Who Cause Wars

Some seem to think Mueller should inspire a war. In their thinking, she is something like a modern-day Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the provocative “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” When he met her, Abraham Lincoln was supposed to have said: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” The notion that a nonviolent, female sideliner could spark wars, which are historically the province of men, goes back into ancient history.

The notion that a nonviolent, female sideliner could spark wars, which are historically the province of men, goes back into ancient history.

The most famous example is Helen of Troy, who caused the Trojan War. Helen was primarily famous for one thing: she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Herodotus even cited Helen in the opening chapters to his “Histories,” explaining how Helen’s abduction by Paris left a bellicose legacy that lingered up to the Persian Wars.

Helen’s beauty represented something worth fighting for—whether men wanted to possess her like property, admire her as art, or lust after her. They would become entranced by her, act irrationally, and be unwittingly led to their doom.

Beecher Stowe likewise touched the sensibilities of mankind with her writing. She was steeped in the doctrines and faith of her father, the Presbyterian preacher Lyman Beecher, and had studied in seminary herself. Her depictions of slavery incited American Christians against its inhumanity and immorality. Neither of these women were warriors, but what they represented—in their own physical beauty or their brilliant writing—was the sort of stuff that incited wars. The same is true of Kayla Mueller.

Now, Mueller isn’t a beautiful, mythological absurdity like Helen, or a brilliant writer like Beecher Stowe, but she is beautiful and brilliant in a way that should stir the soul. Mueller was the antithesis of ISIS, which seeks to capriciously destroy human life, viciously torture human dignity, and systematically eliminate human culture. Kayla was the nemesis of ISIS because she represented everything they were not and everything that people need. She was more than another victim killed by ISIS. She was a representation of freedom, virtue, and goodness.

The Woman Who Inspired Peace

Political leaders within and outside of Iraq and Syria—whether they are far-off powers like the United States or nearby neighbors like Jordan—will always prefer an ordered tyranny over an expanding anarchy. Neither tyranny nor anarchy is good or just, but more often than not, tyranny is better than anarchy because its evils and injustices are more contained. As a neighbor of Syria and Iraq, Jordan has good reasons to campaign against ISIS. As a party responsible for the current chaos in Iraq, the United States has good reasons to intervene as well. But Mueller is not one such reason, because she is so much more than a pretext for war.

Mueller was not a woman who inspired wars. She inspired peace.

For the average Iraqis and Syrians Mueller befriended and served, the only path between tyranny and anarchy is to emulate her. This is not something Americans can impose; it is only something the American people can represent. And Mueller was a good representative.

First of all, Mueller was free. Instead of squandering her freedom like so many do in the West, however, she used it to travel to dangerous places and help those in need. Freedom for Mueller meant volunteering to serve those who did not know the liberty, human dignity, and sanctity of life from her own background. She chose to represent all these things in a land where these were rapidly disappearing or nonexistent.

Second, she was virtuous. Mueller embodied empathy. She vivified the old platitude that a human being demonstrates the greatest love for his friends by sacrificing his life for them. Mueller literally acted this out in the drama of her life. She not only gave her life for others, she dedicated her livelihood to them.

Third, she knew why she was virtuous. Her own writings and those who have spoken about her explained that she was motivated by her belief in a transcendent order. She cared for others because that was how she believed God cared for her: sacrificially and unconditionally. In her final days, she did not give in to the narcissism or nihilism so prevalent in American pop culture. Instead, she acknowledged that she served others because she was motivated by a moral order that was good and just.

Kayla Mueller’s life was a model that should inspire others to behave as selflessly and valiantly, both in distant lands and here at home.

Mueller was not a woman who inspired wars. She inspired peace. Anyone who cites her name as a call to war should remember that. She does not represent how tyranny can keep a lid on the simmering trouble in that region or why anarchy there necessitates foreign intervention. She represents how Iraqis and Syrians can free themselves of these twin evils by believing in freedom, virtue, and a just, divine order. She sacrificed her life there as an example for these things. Freedom need not lead to anarchy; it can inspire service on behalf of humanity. Virtue need not be enforced by an extremist cabal; it can be instilled in and lived out by ordinary people willing to act in extraordinary ways for a greater good. And God is not the tyrannical monster ISIS or other Islamic extremists cite; he is just, perfect, and merciful.

Syria and Iraq will not suddenly become free, virtuous, and good because of Mueller’s example, but they have already learned from it. So should we. If more Kaylas are willing to follow her lead, ordinary citizens there will be inspired to fight for freedom, virtue, and goodness. Her life was a model that should inspire others to behave as selflessly and valiantly, both in distant lands and here at home. It will take years for examples like hers to effect change in that war-torn region, but change for the good is almost always gradual. So, as the politicians and military commanders wrangle over how to respond to her death, may we not forget what her life stood for, because those are the only things that will truly bring peace.

Steele Brand is a Clements postdoctoral fellow and the director of the Clements Undergraduate Fellows at the University of Texas-Austin. He is an ancient historian committed to the applications of historical understanding to modern civics.
Photo By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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