On Nov. 26, four activists of the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT)—Tom Fox of Clear Brook, Va.; Norman Kember of London; and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden—were kidnapped in Iraq by a previously unknown group calling itself the Sword of Righteousness. The group threatened to kill the hostages unless "all Iraqi prisoners are released."
The activists' prospects are grim. Some Western hostages have been released by Iraqi kidnappers, but rarely Brits or Americans. The fact that the four were doing humanitarian work and actively helping ordinary Iraqis survive the war is probably of little consequence. So, too, are the desperate pleas of their colleagues and supporters. Similar pleas and a long history of humanitarian service in Iraq were not enough to save the life of Margaret Hassan, the 59-year-old British-Irish head of the Baghdad branch of British group CARE International, when she was kidnapped and murdered in 2004.
The CPT activists were well aware of the risks. For years, the group has been sending delegations to Palestine (and, more recently, to Colombia and other hot spots). During their long-term stays, they help protect Palestinians from attack by settlers and the Israeli military and help with health care, humanitarian aid, and other aspects of ordinary Palestinians' struggle for survival. When the U.S. threatened to launch a war in Iraq, sending teams to Baghdad was a natural extension of CPT's work. The first CPT team arrived there in October 2002.
CPT activists are pacifists, committed to active nonviolence. The CPT mission is to provide "faith-based nonviolent alternatives in situations where lethal conflict is an immediate reality." Activists like Fox, Kember, Loney, and Sooden know they are working in a war zone—that's the point. The idea is to save lives, by putting their privileged bodies in the way of violence, whether the threat is from Shiite death squads, Sunni gunmen, or trigger-happy U.S. troops.
Does it work? Iraqis must think so. Without support from host communities, groups like CPT wouldn't last a week. That support and their own wits are the only protection such activists have.
America's right-wing echo chamber has been having a field day with the CPT kidnappings—sneering, implicitly or directly, that the peace activists had it coming and were, at best, foolhardy idiots for wandering into a situation where they had no business to be. But they had every business being there. In the blizzard of kidnappings and both criminal and war-related violence plaguing Iraq, the lives of four Westerners are of no great consequence; but even with the massive scale of Iraq's violence, people die one at a time, and lives are saved that way, too. In the three years it has been in Iraq, CPT has saved countless lives through its work.
For citizens of a country like Canada, Britain, or the U.S. to renounce their comfortable lives and willingly walk unarmed into such a setting, fully knowing that by their very citizenship they are prime targets for deadly violence, takes more courage than is ever demonstrated by most soldiers, who usually are cocooned on their bases, surrounded by all the weaponry and protection in the world. Such a commitment takes not recklessness or foolhardiness but a deep and abiding belief in the sanctity of all life and a willingness to work to save the lives of others, even as one's own life is endangered.
These are exactly the traits that we celebrate soldiers for—the willingness to risk everything for a higher ideal and, ultimately, peace. It's a sad commentary on our martial society that when people take such risks but kill (and kill innocents) for the sake of peace, they're considered heroes. When a few lonely, brave souls work toward the same objectives without the use of force, they are widely ignored, derided, and considered fools.
Even the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a Palestinian resistance group that has carried out numerous suicide bombings in recent years, has called on its brethren in Iraq to release the CPT activists. CPT earned respect not by taking sides but by showing guts to help people. It probably won't matter; Fox, Kember, Loney, and Sooden might already be dead, victims of a vortex of violence spinning wildly out of control.
It is primarily Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire of that violence. Groups like CPT will continue to bear witness, publicize and intervene against violence, and save lives. The activists who know they might be next are every bit as much the heroes as any soldier. Perhaps more so, because their risk is often greater and because, by their example, they are demonstrating in a way that occupying soldiers cannot that there are some Westerners who, no matter what their governments' policies, are willing to risk everything to help their fellow human beings.