This week, U.S. President Barack Obama made a request to Congress for a formal authorization for war against Islamic State. It wasn’t a surprise. Although he had been waging a military campaign for months, in his January State of the Union speech, the President called on Congress “to show the world that we are united in this mission” by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force. The formal request comes at a time when the war with Islamic State has become very personal to Americans. Beyond the shocking videos of beheadings, Americans have been able to read deeply personal goodbye letters from hostages (see below). The most recent came from Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker from Arizona who was captured by Islamic State.
On Tuesday, Mueller’s family confirmed that she had been killed. The same day, Obama sent his letter to Congress, which mentioned the hostages by name. “The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses a threat to the people and stability of Iraq, Syria, and the broader Middle East, and to U.S. national security. It threatens American personnel and facilities located in the region and is responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig and Kayla Mueller. If left unchecked, ISIL will pose a threat beyond the Middle East, including to the United States homeland,” he wrote.
In an interview with Buzzfeed today, Obama reflected on Mueller’s death. “She was an outstanding young woman and a great spirit, and I think that spirit will live on. I think the more people learn about her, the more they [will] appreciate what she stood for and how it stands in contrast with the barbaric organization that held her captive,” he said. However, Obama defended the U.S. policy of refusing to pay ransoms to free U.S. hostages. “Once we start doing that, not only are we financing their slaughter of innocent people and strengthening their organization, but we’re actually making Americans even greater targets for future kidnappings.”
Here is Mueller’s letter, written in the spring of 2014 and recently released by her family. It is followed by letters home from Kassig and Foley:
Everyone, If you are receiving this letter it means I am still detained but my cell mates (starting from 11/2/2014) have been released. I have asked them to contact you + send you this letter. It’s hard to know what to say. Please know that I am in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact); I have been treated w/ the utmost respect + kindness. I wanted to write you all a well thought out letter (but I didn’t know if my cell mates would be leaving in the coming days or the coming months restricting my time but primarily) I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. 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 . . . I miss you all as if it has been a decade of forced separation. I have had many a long hour to think, to think of all the things I will do w/Lex, our first family camping trip, the first meeting @ the airport. I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally @ 25 years old come to realize your place in my life. The gift that is each one of you + the person I could + could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support. I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option take it, even if it takes more time. This should never have become your burden. I have asked these women to support you; please seek their advice. If you have not done so already . . . can contact . . . who may have a certain level of experience with these people. None of us could have known it would be this long but know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes. I wrote a song some months ago that says, “The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, w/out your hope there would be nothing left . . .” aka-The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s will we will be together soon.
All my everything,
Peter Kassig’s letter was written while he was in captivity and released by his family in November after his death. He was 26:
It is still really hard to believe all of this is really happening . . . as I am sure you know by now, things have been getting pretty intense. We have been held together, us foreigners . . . and now about half the people have gone home . . . I hope that this all has a happy ending but it may very well be coming down to the wire here, and if in fact that is the case then I figured it was time to say a few things that need saying before I have to go.
The first thing I want to say is thank you. Both to you and mom for everything you have both done for me as parents; for everything you have taught me, shown me, and experienced with me. I cannot imagine the strength and commitment it has taken to raise a son like me but your love and patience are things I am so deeply grateful for.
Secondly, I want you to know about things here and what I’ve been through straight from me so you don’t have to wonder, guess, or imagine (often this is worse than the reality). All in all I am alright. Physically I am pretty underweight but I’m not starved, & I have no physical injuries, I’m a tough kid and still young so that helps.
Mentally I am pretty sure this is the hardest thing a man can go through, the stress and fear are incredible but I am coping as best I can. I am not alone. I have friends, we laugh, we play chess, we play trivia to stay sharp, and we share stories and dreams of home and loved ones. I can be hard to deal with, you know me. My mind is quick and my patience thinner than most. But all in all I am holding my own. I cried a lot in the first few months but a little less now. I worry a lot about you and mom and my friends.
They tell us you have abandoned us and/or don’t care but of course we know you are doing everything you can and more. Don’t worry Dad, if I do go down, I won’t go thinking anything but what I know to be true. That you and mom love me more than the moon & the stars.
I am obviously pretty scared to die but the hardest part is not knowing, wondering, hoping, and wondering if I should even hope at all. I am very sad that all this has happened and for what all of you back home are going through. If I do die, I figure that at least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.
In terms of my faith, I pray everyday and I am not angry about my situation in that sense. I am in a dogmatically complicated situation here, but I am at peace with my belief.
I wish this paper would go on forever and never run out and I could just keep talking to you. Just know I’m with you. Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me. I love you.
James Foley, 40, asked a fellow hostage who was being released to memorize this letter and dictate it to his family. Foley was killed in August:
Dear Family and Friends,
I remember going to the mall with dad, a very long bike ride with mom. I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison. Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart.
I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all, especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.
Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell . . . we have found ways to play checkers, chess, and Risk … and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day’s game or lecture.
The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.
I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.
I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them. If there is any money left in my bank account, I want it to go to Michael and Matthew. I am so proud of you, Michael and thankful to you for happy childhood memories and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones.
And big John, how I enjoyed visiting you and Cress in Germany. Thank you for welcoming me. I think a lot about RoRo and try to imagine what Jack is like. I hope he has RoRo’s personality!
And Mark . . . so proud of you, too, Bro. I think of you on the West Coast and hope you are doing some snowboarding and camping. I especially remember us going to the Comedy Club in Boston together and our big hug after. The special moments keep me hopeful.
Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding . . . now I am sounding like Grammy!!
Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita’s when I get home. Stay strong, because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.