Waging Peace, at Home and Abroad
Tomorrow, it is very likely that four people, taken hostage two weeks ago, will be executed in Iraq, the latest victims of a war that has claimed unknowable thousands of lives. But the ironies and injustices tower ever higher from there. These four people -- Norman Kember of London, Tom Fox of Clear Brook, Va., and Canadians James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden -- are not soldiers or military contractors. They are volunteers with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, nonviolent activists who serve as witnesses and advocates in war-torn regions around the country.
You might not have heard much about the CPT, but they have been serving for years as go-betweens to help families in Iraq search of relatives who have been imprisoned in coalition military sweeps. CPT has been on the ground, outside of the green zone, covering abuses against detainees for quite some time. Indeed, they had documentation of detainee abuse well before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.
Just as the CPT team in Iraq works to document the abuses and detentions of Iraqi civilians by occupying forces in that country, their abductors demand the release of all detainees in Iraq before they will release the CPT hostages.
The American Friends Service Committee, founded by the pacifist Quakers in 1917, has been following the news closely, issuing press releases regarding the hostages, one of whom, the American Tom Fox, is a member of the Quaker community. The AFSC is currently in the midst of a "Wage Peace" campaign directed at ending the war on Iraq.
Central to this campaign is the "Eyes Wide Open" exhibit, currently touring communities throughout the country. The concept is simple: one pair of combat boots for each U.S. soldier who has died, set out roughly three feet apart in military format. Alongside of these are placed some 6,000 shoes of various sizes, representing the estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilian killed in the war.
The boots and shoes are all tagged with names and ages of the fallen. According to Marq Anderson, the national tour manager for the exhibit, over 700,000 Americans have attended the exhibits, with some 200 requests from communities who are still seeking to host the display.
The incredible turnout and demand for the continuation of the exhibit reveals how organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, in its "Wage Peace" campaign, have filled a critical vacuum in the current dialogue on the war in Iraq simply by humanizing the losses.
Suffering from 'Atrocity Fatigue'
As a journalist, it's difficult not to wonder why there is so little outrage over the ever-increasing absurdities in the war on terror. There is no end to the scandalous news emanating from all fronts in this Global War on Terror: CIA flights deliver people to other countries in order to use interrogation procedures illegal in the U.S.; millions of tons of bombs have been dropped during a war in which we long since declared ourselves victorious; the casualty list -- already a staggering 2,135 U.S. soldiers -- grows longer every day as reports of suicide bombers and IEDs pepper the nightly news.
Perhaps that's just it. There is only a certain quota of moral outrage that we can muster. Especially during the holiday season when more personal battles are being waged, such as the one pitting our ever-increasing debt against the constant messages to consume all the more.
People have become inured to the scale of carnage on the news, and the scandal in the White House. Indeed, this administration's tactic, intended or not, seems to work impressively well: cover up one flub-up with another, more mind-boggling one.
Just when people thought they could wrap their minds around the CIA allegedly torturing war on terror suspects in Europe, Americans are faced with digesting the news that our military is paying journalists in Iraq to publish pro-American stories. Spreading democracy is, apparently, an inherently undemocratic process.
Journalist Iain MacWhirter labels Americans' inability to process and respond "atrocity fatigue." In the Sunday Telegraph, he writes:
We're all familiar now with 'compassion fatigue,' when we become inured to the plight of disaster victims in uncharismatic parts of the world such as Kashmir. Well, I fear we are now developing a kind of 'atrocity fatigue' over Iraq. Last week, we learned that George W Bush had contemplated bombing the offices of Al-Jazeera in Doha... Yet this led to a curiously muted public response, as if -- heck -- we all know that Dubya is crazy' what's new? It was all a joke, according to one insider. Media wits were saying that Tony Blair actually wanted him to bomb the BBC instead -- ho ho."Honoring and acknowledging the dead
In the mountain of outrageous information, it's easy to lose sight of one of the most important aspects of this mountain: what isn't in it. Marq Anderson stresses that the Eyes Wide Open exhibit has been cathartic for so many Americans, particularly those who are friends and family members of the fallen, because it gives them a chance to see their loved ones honored by the community.
As a Vietnam veteran, Anderson notes that Americans seem more distanced now from the human costs of war than when he was in the service. "One prime difference in this war," he explained, "is that the body bags and coffins are not shown coming back into the country. They're purposely flown in clandestinely in the middle of the night." Anderson says that most of the family members believe this shouldn't be the case.
"I've talked to people who are in favor of the war," he says, "but they also believe that their son or daughter should be given the highest respect and regard. Every one of them would be honored to see their son or daughter's coffin welcomed back into the country with the proper amount of people and media in presence."
Film footage and photographs used to be instrumental in keeping the American public connected to what the human costs of war were. During Vietnam, public response to the images of caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base was a way that politicians took the pulse of the public's tolerance (or lack thereof) -- it was deemed the "Dover Test." But, in the name of the "respecting and protecting" the privacy of family members of the fallen, the Pentagon has imposed a media ban.
In April of 2005, University of Delaware professor Ralph Begleiter won a lawsuit that sought the release of photographs from Dover under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Some 700 photos were released, though many of them were censored, with black rectangles blocking faces and name tags, making the photos unusable for many media outlets. Although it represents a notable victory, the Pentagon has warned that this isolated release "does not signify any lifting of the ban on media coverage of returning casualties."
Inadvertently punishing the peacemakers
While the AFSC has been pleased with their ability to reflect the loss of some 2,135 American soldiers, Anderson notes that the other half of the exhibit -- the shoes representing the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths -- has received less attention by the press. This is disheartening to the group whose central message is to convey the human loss on both sides of the conflict. But in a roundabout way, Americans might finally get this message.
That's because the Quakers peace efforts finally did make the news. Unfortunately, the headline wasn't about Eyes Wide Open -- but rather how a peaceful campaign was interrupted by violence. With the abduction and threatened execution of Quaker activist Tom Fox and the three other members of the CPT's Iraq team, the plight of all detainees is making front-page headlines once again.
A friend and member of Fox's U.S. support team, Pearl Hoover, told the press, "Part of his being there was to be a presence with people at their own level of risk ... thousands of people are being held hostage in Iraq.... Tom happens to be connected to the West and the outside world. Who knows what other families are wondering what happens to their loved ones? That's not being covered in international news."
Such is the irony of the situation. Videotaped in orange jumpsuits much like those the U.S. uses for their detainees, Fox and the others are being held hostage by a group that has claimed that they are spies. Members of the "Swords of Righteousness Brigade" are apparently unwilling to trust what their captors are saying. It is a situation mirrored by thousands of Iraqis held in U.S. prisons throughout Iraq and military bases around the world who have little else to offer their captors save their word, and their IDs. It is this kind of confusion that members of the CPT have worked to navigate in Iraq.
Fox and other volunteers were well aware of the possibility of being in a hostage situation. A statement had already been given to members of CPT support groups stating that, should they be taken hostage, "CPT will attempt to communicate with the hostage takers or their sponsors, and work against journalists' inclinations to vilify and demonize the offenders."
A recent Salon article points to the almost unbelievable response of CPT: "At times, the attempts by members of CPT to avoid demonizing their friends' abductors can be so hard ... to grasp that they approach self parody." This idea is only furthered by the stated belief of Cliff Kindy, a member of the CPTs' steering committee who has taken three five-month trips to Iraq, that "If you start using words like 'kidnap' ... then it begins to depersonalize human beings ... It takes away their humanity, and also the people who are hosting them. They have family members -- they may be married, they may have children. They are somebody's children. They have dreams and hopes for their country."
The true impact of "Eyes Wide Open," and CPT's work, is to focus on the individual, human scale in order to once again make us feel the impact of war and violence. An empty pair of boots is not simply a "fallen soldier," but a name, connected with a family and a community.
The project takes great pains to emphasize the humanity of even the captor of an innocent peace worker. When people are able to feel, the broader black and white picture fades to grey, blurring the divides that fuel violence. At a time when there is so little in the media to remind us of the human costs of war, outrage and empathy are some of the hardest emotions to cultivate and maintain. This is precisely why they are the most dangerous emotions Americans can lose. Indeed, as Fox wrote on his blog before he was captured:
The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of peacemaking work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. A person can experience a feeling of being overwhelmed. Or a feeling of rage and desire for revenge. Or a desire to move away from the pain. Or a sense of numbness that can deaden the ability to feel anything at all. How do I stay with the pain and suffering and not be overwhelmed? How do I keep from disconnecting or becoming numb to the pain? After eight months with CPT, I am no clearer than I was when I began. In fact, I have to struggle harder and harder each day against my desire to move away or become numb. Simply staying with the pain of others doesn't seem to create any healing or transformation. Yet there seems to be no other first step into the realm of compassion than to not step away.