Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Captivity


For a while, James Loney was famous in Canada. In 2005 he -- along with three other members of a pacifist Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation in Iraq -- was kidnapped and held in captivity for four months. The story appeared on the front pages of newspapers for weeks. Then it was revealed that one of the kidnappees -- Tom Fox, a Quaker from the United States -- had been killed while in captivity. A few weeks later soldiers rescued the remaining members of the team, dramatically breaking into the house in which the were held captive. Loney returned to Canada to a hero's welcome, but the fundamental contradiction was inescapable: how could Loney justify his pacifist anti-war activities when he was rescued by the very warmakers his group opposed in Iraq?

Loney's story resonated particularly deeply with people in my social circle. Christian Peacemaker Teams have a strong presence in Kitchener-Waterloo, and many of us know people who have gone on CPT delegations. In addition, Loney was an active member of the Catholic Worker movement, which has a strong philosphical influence at the cult . There is even a poster created by Loney and artist Andy Macpherson which hangs on the walls of our workplace. So many of us followed the drama closely, and I am sure that many of us struggled with the contradictions of Loney's rescue.

In 2011 Loney wrote a memoir about his experiences, called Captivity: 118 Days in Iraq and the Struggle for a World Without War. I suspect everybody expected Loney to solve the contradiction for us. He didn't. I remember a rather awkward interview he gave for Q: The Podcast while he was promoting the book. Loney did not come across as an expert who had all the answers. Instead he came across as unsure, and deeply uncomfortable with the black and white portrayal of his situation and its meaning.

Last year I read the book. Even though Loney does not resolve the paradox, I feel the book is well worth reading. Loney did not write a manifesto of the righteousness of his actions. Instead he wrote a book of witness, carefully documenting the way his captivity played out, and humanizing all its participants -- even his Iraqi captors. He also documents the misery and hypocrisy of war, how he benefited from the instruments of war, and his own difficulties in dealing with the paradox of his rescue.

Loney talks about the philosophical movements he participates in: about the appeal of the Catholic Worker movement, about the struggles of living in community, about experimenting with a farm, about deciding to join the Christian Peacemaker Teams and about the work that they do, about his deployments "getting in the way" in Palestine and Burnt Church and Iraq, where his job was to document abuses and intervene for peace.

One of the vignettes that struck home illustrated the systematic prejudice of how the news is reported. He was travelling on a bus when somewhere in the distance an IED went off. As it turned out, Dan Rather was on site with a news team, and they looked for eyewitnesses. Out of all the people stuck on that highway, they chose Loney to be on the news, because he spoke English and is white. This doesn't just happen in Iraq, of course; I remember attending a CPT presentation where Matthew Bailey-Dyck related a very similar story about Burnt Church: some native boats were being rammed, and when the news came to report on the event they chose him -- and not any of the natives -- to be the eyewitness of the news.

Later, Loney and three other members of his team -- Tom Fox, Harmeet Singh Sooden (also Canadian, but living in New Zealand) and Norman Kember (from Britain) are kidnapped. Loney documents how they were kidnapped, how the captives dealt with being handcuffed to each other constantly, the small irritations that blow up into big ones, the boredom, the uncertainty, the frustrations, the tiny opportunities for freedom that Loney relishes. In addition, Loney documents his captors. He does not condone their actions, and I do not think he likes them a great deal, but he documents them as people who (in some sense) are as much captives as the CPTers. He writes about how Tom Fox is treated much more harshly than the other captives, and later he writes about why. He writes about watching action movies with his captors in which they see themselves as the heroes. He writes about being asked/coerced into giving massages to the captors, and about how their tight muscles reveal that they too are under stress. Some people would call this humanization Stockholm Syndrome, but I do not think that is it. If Loney has a message in this book, it is of universal humanism, of acknowledging that the kidnappers who captured him and the soldiers who rescued him and the people caught in the middle are all human beings who should have a shared dignity -- a dignity which violence destroys. Loney's ability to write about other human beings as human beings is no small feat. Around the same time I read Loney's book I read Salman Rusdie's memoir Joseph Anton; Rushdie despises his enemies, and offers them no such concessions.

In addition to the fundamental paradox, the story of Tom Fox's killing sticks out in this story. Loney writes that the captives were in the dark about Fox's killing as much as the rest of us. During their captivity the CPTers are moved between houses a couple of times. They are told that they are going to switch houses, and Tom Fox is taken first, with the understanding that the others will follow. But the others are not moved, and Tom does not come back. The remaining captives do not know what has happened to Tom, and it is not until later in their captivity that they learn of his killing.

Loney does not portray himself as an angel in this book; given the nature of his faith and activism, that should not be a surprise. Sometimes he beats himself up for what I considered small transgressions, such as expressing preference for a particular sweater. At other times the actions he and his fellow captives take mystify me. I will not give away the details here, but suffice it to say that there were times when the captives could have taken more responsibility for their own freedoms, and chose not to. Maybe I would have done the same things they did, but I still felt some irritation when reading about them. However, that is also an aspect of witness, and it is to Loney's credit that he does not make himself out to be a hero.

And then comes the rescue, and Loney's return home. It is here that Loney attempts to address the paradox to the degree he can. One of Loney's rescuers chews him out for causing the military so much trouble. Loney does not have an answer for the soldier on the spot, but in writing the book he relates what he wishes he had said: that he acknowledges the paradox, that he wishes the CPTers and their captors and the soldiers could talk as human beings, and that the gun is still in charge. I do not think this answer will satisfy everybody, or even many people. Maybe I heard a more satisfying answer in 2006, when Loney gave a talk at the St Jerome's University at the University of Waterloo. During the question and answer period somebody asked him about the irony. At that time he said that the Christian Peacemaker Teams had not asked for the government to pour resources into the team's rescue, and that there were other non-combatants (such as contractors) in Iraq who were not put under ths same scrutiny.

Maybe the real question is this: what right do pacifists such as Christian Peacemaker Teams to be in places like Iraq where they could be kidnapped? Is it fair to expect the military to bail them out? It is this last aspect that pushes people's hypocrisy buttons. But I am not sure it should. I am not a Christian Peacemaker or a Catholic Worker or a pacifist, so I will go out and say it: James Loney and Tom Fox and Norman Kender and Harmeet Singh Sooden are heroes. But they are not heroes because they were kidnapped, or because Tom Fox died in the process. They were heroes well before they were hostages, in the same way that members of other CPT delegations (and delegations from other NGOs such as Peace Brigades International) are heroes: because they are willing to go to places of conflict and use their privilege to intervene. We laud soldiers who go abroad to kill and die for our geopolitical interests. We should similarly laud those who actively work to oppose violence and war, regardless of whether war can or should be stopped. The members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams were not naive. They knew they were walking into risky situations, and they take precautions to reduce those risks. As Loney said during his 2006 talk, the CPTers did not feel that they were entitled to rescue (although Loney states clearly that he is grateful for his freedom). The CPTers knew they could die, and they went anyways for the sake of service. That sounds like heroism to me.

Furthermore, I am not sure that their efforts are futile. By documenting the conditions and abuses of the people caught in these conflict zones, they do the kind of reporting that newspapers can no longer afford (and often are not interested in, unless people die). CPT goes a step beyond the work of newspaper reporters, however: they get in the way. They mediate peace and facilitate nonviolence. Maybe that work is not wholly effective, but it is important.

There is a cynical argument to be made: this story would have been cleaner if Loney and the other CPTers had lived by their principles and were all killed the way Tom Fox were (or alternatively: that they had escaped on their own, or that they convinced their captors to let them go). Maybe these would have been cleaner narratives, but I am grateful that Loney, Kember and Sooden got out alive, and I am glad that Loney wrote this book. It is an honest document that documents aspects of war that do not further anybody's geopolitical interests, and thus are rarely reported elsewhere. The news story may have faded into our memories, but the lessons are still relevant, and I hope that the book will remain in circulation (and will continue to be read) for a long time.