Girl, Taken

Arlington Heights is a tranquil place. World events seldom disturb the peace of the Northwest suburbs of Chicago until they do. On September 11, 1973, General Pinochet staged a coup against the president of Chile. Supporters loyal to the regime were rounded up and executed. One of these supporters was an American aide worker from Des Plaines named Frank Teruggi. After the coup, The Arlington Herald newspaper published a picture of his father on the front page, sitting in the kitchen, newspapers spread out before him wondering about the fate of his son.

The U.S. Government didn’t help the Teruggi family; nor did they help the family of Frank’s friend, Charles Horman. The film Hollywood made about their murder was called Missing, starring Jack Lemon. The film told the story of a family betrayed by U.S. political concerns. Both men were among Pinochet’s victims, collateral damage in a coup supported by Nixon and Kissinger.

Almost half a century later nothing has changed. This month, ABC’s 20/20 told the story of ISIS’ kidnapping and execution of Kayla Mueller, an aid worker from Arizona, whose grandfather, Joe Lyon, lives in Arlington Heights.1

Kayla was helping Syrian refugees in Turkey and one day made the mistake of accompanying a friend, who had been hired by Doctors Without Borders, to work on hospital computer systems inside Syria. They crossed the border using transportation and help provided by Doctors without Borders. After completing the work for the Doctors, they were on their way back to Turkey when they were ambushed and kidnapped by the Islamic State. 

Doctors Without Borders abandoned her

Despite being a humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders abandoned them. Even though Doctors without Borders had helped Kayla and her contractor friend enter Syria, they washed their hands. Their excuse was that Kayla was not an employee so Kayla wasn’t their problem. Shame on them. This is not the first time that an organization working in the Middle East has hid behind “independent contractor” label in order to evade responsibility. Their abdication of responsibility directly led to Kayla’s death. 

Kayla’s parents in Prescott, Arizona were not told immediately of Kayla’s capture. Like good Americans, they turned to their government for help. Presumably they had not seen the movie, Missing. Long-term American expats know that in case of trouble, the last place you want to go is the American Embassy. In 2001, when a group of British hospital workers was accused of terrorist bombings inside Saudi Arabia, an American Embassy official told me, “if they were our guys we wouldn’t lift a finger.“ 

The U.S. government did lift a finger, but not much more. They organized a SWAT-team like raid which failed. They wrote messages to send to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Their pleas to a religious leader were devoid of Islamic religious content. This is like writing to the Catholic pope and avoiding any mention of Christianity. 

I have no doubt that the FBI hostage negotiators are experts. I doubt very much if they know the difference between shari’a and Shakira. Tactics which might be wholly appropriate for dealing with an American hostage-taker are of little use in dealing with an Islamic warlord, especially a warlord who is a graduate of our torture chamber in post-invasion Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Al-Baghdadi reasoned that such messages were merely an effort to stall for time while the U.S. planned another SWAT team raid. 

When these good American parents visited the State Department they had their hands held as American officials threatened them with prosecution were they to pay ISIS the ransom it wanted for Kayla. Meanwhile, Doctors without Borders ransomed its own “employees,” leaving the fate of the “independent contractors” to others. While officially condemning negotiations with the Taliban, the United State turned a blind eye to Qatar’s successful efforts to ransom an American serviceman held by the Taliban Afghanistan. These good American parents even went to Qatar to seek similar mercy, and, if 20/20 is accurate, were threatened by our government again. 

No one at the State Department bothered to direct Kayla’s parents to our allies in the region, allies who in the past have used their good offices to free prisoners being held in other countries.

I cannot understand why the Saudis were never asked. The Saudis have a religious tradition of intervening to mediate payments made to victim’s family. They are no strangers to the labyrinthine web of Middle East connections. Like both the United States and ISIS, they view Iran as an enemy. Even if the Saudi government were to officially decline help, individual Saudis might have been asked on a confidential basis. This was never done. 

Even as Doctors without Borders officially refused Kayla’s parents help, could they have informally helped? Of course they could have, but they were never asked.  

Tired of the stalling, ISIS executed Kayla. After her death, there were crocodile tears at the State Department and Doctors without Borders hypocritically sent their condolences. President Obama even met with the family for another meaningless session of hand-holding. Kayla died, we are told, so that Americans overseas do not become targets.

News flash: Americans overseas are targets. We were targets before Iraq and we most certainly are targets of the alumni of Abu Ghraib. Ask the Israelis what they do when their citizens are captured. They negotiate. They do not leave their people behind. 

The American government’s policy of failing to help American families hasn’t changed since 1973. Our refusal to negotiate is naive. This policy must be changed.

  1. My sister was married to Joe Lyon’s son Jim. [return]