Remember ISIS Victim Peter Kassig For His Incredible Life Achievements
According to new reports, ISIS has executed Peter Kassig, a 26-year-old USAid worker who described himself as a "hopeless romantic...an idealist," and a believer "in hopeless causes." Though the video released of his execution "revels in gore," according to the BBC, it is not the video that deserves attention, but rather the incredible things Kassig achieved in his short life that should be honored and remembered.
The New Yorker describes Kassig as an "itinerant idealist," one who would rather imagine new ways to help struggling communities than join his peers at a bar. His passion and desire to bring relief to those less fortunate, it appears, made him seem much older than his 26 years. Kassig, an Indianapolis, Indiana native, graduated high school in 2006, and immediately joined the Army, where he was assigned to the 75th ranger regiment of the "elite Ranger battalion." His four-month deployment in Iraq, however, ended in 2007, along with his military convictions. His brief service left him with the distinct impression that violence and aggression were not for him, and when he returned home for medical reasons, he decided to pursue other avenues of change.
He enrolled in Butler University, where he studied political science and ran track, specializing in the 1,500 meter race. But even then, something wasn't quite right.
While other college kids concern themselves with grades, partying and the opposite sex, Kassig had already lived a life beyond these more material pursuits. As CNN reports, Kassig said,
I was going to school with kids who look the same, were the same age as me, but we weren't the same. I wanted more of a challenge, a sense of purpose.
In his two years at Butler, The Guardian reports that Kassig was more interested in the Syrian conflict than his classes. Kassig had previously begun classes for his certification as an emergency medical technician, and seemed to become increasingly enamored with the idea of bringing health aid to Middle Eastern communities. After a marriage and a subsequent divorce, a heartbroken Kassig decided to take a break from his studies and returned to the Middle East, providing medical care and other humanitarian aid to refugees in Lebanon.
But even this was not enough for the young Kassig, and the next year, at 24, he founded the Special Emergency Response and Assistance humanitarian group, or SERA, dedicated to providing "medical training, supplies and treatment in areas too difficult for other humanitarian organizations to effectively operate, including parts of Syria, Lebanon and Turkey." When there wasn't enough funding from outside sources, friends remember that Kassig would finance the operation himself, as he was always willing to "personally foot the bill to get more medicine to those who needed it."
His work constantly sent him on trips in and out of Syria, and even as the crisis escalated, Kassig refused to retreat to safer areas, and instead worked even harder. His intense dedication to his cause is perhaps best captured in an interview with CNN, in which he said,
We each get one life and that's it. We get one shot at this and we don't get any do-overs, and for me, it was time to put up or shut up. The way I saw it, I didn’t have a choice. This is what I was put here to do. I guess I am just a hopeless romantic, and I am an idealist, and I believe in hopeless causes
His friend, PhD candidate Erin Corey, remembers initially being skeptical about the authenticity of Kassig's commitment. In her time as an academic, Corey developed an "unfair wariness" of "young male expats out to save the world." She writes,
They were there for an adventure or to pad their CVs, and had chosen the city because it was close enough to the “action” while still feeling vaguely familiar and fairly comfortable. Many of them would leave when the money ran out, a better opportunity came up back home, or the political situation became too intense.
But soon, Corey discovered that Kassig was not there for any of those reasons — he was truly, completely and unabashedly in the war-torn areas of the Middle East to pursue his true calling. "If ever there were a soul who walked the walk," Corey says, "it is him."
Kassig converted to Islam at some point in 2013, which his parents believe was an authentic move not spurred by his capture on October 1, 2013, when he was taken by Syrian militants. He changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig, and continued making dangerous trips in order to treat "Syrian refugees with the gravest of wounds, both physical and emotional." Kassig, his friend Michael Downey remembers, had never been deterred by the very real threat of militant attacks. Nothing, Downey wrote for The Telegraph, would stop the humanitarian from "completing his mission – helping those in need, whatever means necessary."
Even during his yearlong captivity, Kassig maintained the same optimism and passion that had affected the lives of so many. In a letter to his mother and father, who work as a nurse and a science teacher, Kassig said,
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.
Kassig's resilience and his fierce commitment to his cause, Downey believes, "stemmed from his brief period in the military; he didn’t want that part of his life to define him." Whereas Kassig found that violence and conflict could only bring death and destruction, "the only way to mend the suffering of others was to pick up the fragments and strive for peace, aiding one person at a time."
In his letter, Kassig wrote,
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.
And for the countless lives Kassig touched in his short time on Earth, from friends to families to refugees, they can all agree upon one thing. As Downey wrote, "The world doesn’t deserve a person like Pete, but it sure is a much better place with him."