Thursday, December 01, 2005

When Pacifists Become Hostages

The story coming out of Iraq of four members of Christian Peacemaker Team being held hostage by an insurgent organization provides a new twist on hostage-taking in Iraq. There are several factors that make this situation so complicated.

First, these hostages are pacifists. CPT is founded by Mennonites and Quakers and is one of the latest incarnations of that long pacifist tradition. These hostages are prepared to die as a witness to the cause of peace. As the BBC reported, their commitment to the cause of peace is no less strong than a soldier's commitment to the cause of war. "We are convinced they are on the wrong track as soldiers, so we are challenging ourselves and asking: 'Do we not have as much faith and as much courage as soldiers have and are we willing to put our own lives on the line'?"

Second, they are opposed to the war in Iraq and even blame the Americans for their plight. According to the organization's website, they "are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people." This perspective seems to conflate but for with proximate causation.

Third, they do not want ransom payment or armed intervention to rescue them. According to this report, CPT "policies state that ransoms will not be paid for workers taken hostage [and] ... its members ... do not use armed protection in Iraq, are prepared to die for peace and would eschew the use of violence to rescue hostages." What they want, apparently, is to make a statement. The CPT members had previously issued a "statement of conviction" expressing the hope that "in loving both friends and enemies and by intervening non-violently to aid those who are systematically oppressed, we can contribute in some small way to transforming this volatile situation."

So what should be our response to the plight of such hostages? CPT has stated that "[o]ur experience is that violence can be disarmed with the witness to peace, truth, love and justice. The willingness to give life instead of taking life is very powerful." I have spoken with pacifists I know well and they say that their deaths will make a profound statement for the cause of peace. But a statement to whom? The bloodthirsty radical insurgent groups bent on killing civilians? The allied forces in Iraq? The public or politicians back home?

In some respects it appears their non-violent peacemaking efforts are intended to be a modern manifestation of Martin Luther King's nonviolent civil rights movement or Gandhi's nonviolent revolution in India. I am quite familiar with the peacemaking movement that spawned those great successes. But the enemy here is an altogether different animal than the "enemy" in those celebrated causes. How will nonviolent protests from the likes of CPT members work in a situation like Iraq? Any clarification would be most welcome, as I just don't see how the violent death of these hostages will have the intended effect they envision. I suspect that if the hostages are killed, it will only embitter the public against this enemy and embolden the soldiers to root out the insurgents by force. The death of these pacifists will not beget peace, but only further violence.

Prior to leaving for Iraq, one of the hostages, Norman Kember, age 74, was quoted on this video as saying "I've done a lot of writing and talking about peacemaking ... but that is what I would call 'cheap peacemaking.' This is a bit more costly, or could be." Indeed.

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