Kayla Mueller: The Best of America

The 26-year-old aid worker taken by ISIS left Arizona to help a people suffering through civil war. Now, her courage should remind us of all the good we’re still capable of.

02.09.15 1:20 AM ET

She looks quite happy in the pictures displayed last week in most American newspapers and on TV. She is smiling, the smile speaking for itself, saying “I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Her name is Kayla Mueller. She is 26 years old, a resident of two places: Prescott, Arizona and the world. And until last week not that many people knew that she had been kidnapped off a street in Aleppo, Syria, and has been held hostage by ISIS since August 2013.

Her name became truly famous only when the media wing of the crazed, criminal, and murderous cult that is ISIS claimed she had been killed in a bombing raid conducted by the Jordanian air force. Jordan and its king flexed their military muscle after a young Jordanian pilot, another hostage held by ISIS, had been burned alive in a cage.

Today, the civilized world does not know whether she is dead or alive. That, due to the fact that a small tribe of demented killers—ISIS—has no moral compass or conscience and could still be holding her for a more macabre purpose.

What we do know however is this: Kayla Mueller is us. She is what the United States truly is, or used to be, even though that definition of who we are has been diminished across the last decade or so.

Kayla Mueller was traveling along the Turkish-Syrian border. She was in the middle of one of the largest, most dangerous refugee problems in the world in a place where hundreds of thousands have been sentenced to a life wandering through a wasteland of a civil war that has destroyed Syria.

She wasn’t there for a big salary, media attention or the pursuit of celebrity. Clearly, what she was doing was who she was. And she was not a novice when it came to lending herself to those in need.

According to reports in her hometown newspaper, she had volunteered at a women’s homeless shelter and a HIV-AIDS clinic in Prescott. Before she arrived in Turkey, she had been to India and Israel helping in refugee settlements there. She was learning Arabic to better communicate with those crushed and on the run from violence.

Then she was gone. On the morning that she was supposed to catch a bus in Aleppo for the return to Turkey she became one of “the disappeared.” And for all these months, from the summer of 2013 to last week, her parents along with a few family friends and the United States government wondered, worried, and worked at gaining her release; that, every hour of every day.

But this week brings us back to a hideous reality of our present culture. The name—Kayla Mueller—is no longer the big news lede. Her story has dropped off most front pages and the top of the network news.

We’ve moved along. Twitter’s attention span can’t wait for Kayla. After all, we have Brian Williams and Bruce Jenner to focus on, a major obsession. We have a new poll out of New Hampshire showing Jeb Bush with a slight lead in that state’s Republican presidential primary, an election one year away. Plus, we’re still sorting through the aftereffects of what various and absurd candidates have said about vaccinations and why the president mentioned the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast. Oh, and don’t forget the Grammy Awards and what they mean to the future of America.

Prescott, Arizona, has a population of 40,000. In the summer of 2013, only weeks before Kayla Mueller vanished in Syria, the town was brought to its knees when 19 local men, firefighters, died combating a wildfire in the nearby mountains. The memory of that loss remains as vivid as the clear blue sky that dominates most Arizona days.

Now the nightmare continues with the agonizing mystery surrounding one young woman who went out to the wider world armed only with the best of American intentions: to help those who need help the most.

She was not there in uniform. She carried no weapon other than good will. She sought no territory and merely wanted to conquer or at least restrain the feeling of helplessness that infects those who live in the violent shadow of war. Her purpose was to help.

Her name is Kayla Mueller. She is 26 years old, a resident of Prescott, Arizona, and the world. And no matter her fate or her location today, she represents the absolute best of the United States of America.

Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Kayla was working with Doctors Without Borders, we have since corrected. We regret the error.