“Sometimes rebels want to know if I will join the fight. I always tell them no … I can either be in a position to deliver tens of thousands of dollars of antibiotics for women and children, or I can be another young man with a gun.”
– Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig
On Sunday, Nov. 16, the United States confirmed that Islamic State fighters had beheaded Abdul-Rahman (or Peter, as I knew him) Kassig, my classmate from Butler University.
The next day, I returned to work at the Win Without War coalition. One of my peers had been murdered, yet my job was to organize opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria. On a deeply personal level, I had to reconcile my career choice with the fact the Islamic State had just murdered my classmate.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
When I found out about Peter’s death, my gut reaction was to seek immediate revenge, to see his murderers bombed. The Islamic State could not get away with kidnapping, torturing and beheading innocent American citizens and humanitarian aid workers, I thought.
However, by reflecting on Peter’s life and by speaking with others who knew him, I came to believe Peter would not have wanted us to continue bombing Syria in his name. During conversations with friends, professors and others from the Indianapolis community, no one mentioned the idea of vengeance. Instead, everyone spoke admiringly of Peter’s humanitarian work and brainstormed ideas of how we could carry on his legacy by helping the Syrian people. Many of us realized that what we wanted, more than retribution, was to make sure that Peter did not die in vain.
Peter first went to the Middle East as a U.S. Army Ranger. In 2012, he returned as a man of peace, founding a nonprofit called Special Emergency Response and Assistance, and using his emergency medical technician experience to aid Syria’s wounded. In a 2012 letter, he explained his resolve to work for peace: “War never ends, it just moves around … Loss and destruction in this land brings about only survival; the determination to press on and rebuild … because there is nothing else. To rubble and dust and back again.”
It takes strength to listen to our better angels instead of giving in to revenge. As a nation, we will benefit from resisting our initial instincts and asking the hard questions about our latest war in Iraq and Syria: What do our desire for vengeance and our revulsion at the barbarism of the Islamic State mean in real policy terms? Will airstrikes and ground troops actually degrade the Islamic State, or will they be counterproductive?
The majority of Americans believe this new enemy must be degraded; yet almost 70 percent have little confidence that U.S. airstrikes will succeed in accomplishing that goal. After 13 years of endless war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are right to believe that we cannot solve every problem with military might.
National security experts have presented viable and effective alternatives to endless war, and President Barack Obama should heed their advice. Instead of giving in to our first gut reaction, the American people should join these experts and demand, at a minimum, a more fundamental debate about the effective alternatives to military force that might allow us to address the threat from the Islamic State without perpetuating the cycle of violence.
The simple truth is that war isn’t working. After months of U.S.-led bombing in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State is reportedly stronger than ever, controlling roughly the same territory they did when the first bombs fell. Instead of being degraded, the group has also seen a massive increase in recruitment and continues its horrific campaign of violence and terror. And, tragically, American bombs have killed innocent civilians and may be making political solutions to the broader conflict harder to achieve.
One way to honor Peter’s memory is to write your representatives in Congress and request they advocate for effective alternatives to endless war. As Iraq war veteran and Center for International Policy fellow Matthew Hoh explained, “The beheadings are bait. The Islamic State is a parasite of war. Its narrative needs war for their personal, organizational and ideological success.”
I understand the temptation to demand revenge, but we need to take a step back and reflect upon where retaliation through bombing ultimately leads.
Peter Kassig saw the futility of war and gave his life in the struggle to bring peace to the people of Syria. As Peter’s parents wrote in their statement on Nov. 16, “We prefer our son is written about and remembered for his important work, not in the manner the hostage takers would use to manipulate Americans and further their cause.”
Angela Miller is the digital director for Win Without War, a coalition of national organizations that aims to promote a more progressive national security strategy. Miller is a 2012 graduate of Butler University, where she was a classmate of Peter Kassig.
Tribune News Service