(My “Peace and Justice Files” column from March 2006, updated)
People are sometimes surprised to find out that although I’m a Quaker and a pacifist, I study a martial art. I hold a black belt in aikido, which focuses not on attacking others, but on defending oneself by redirecting or otherwise neutralizing an attacker’s force, transforming the situation from conflict to harmony. The many connections between peace/nonviolence work and aikido are fodder for a whole other essay, if not a book – but recent events make me want to look at one question in particular.
It’s one thing to be able to defend your own self from attack – but how do you respond when the subject of the attack isn’t yourself, but someone else?
It’s kinda obvious: you have to draw force away from the victim, and onto yourself. Or, in other words: you have to get in the way.
“Get in the way” is the motto of Christian Peacemaker Teams (www.cpt.org). CPT came into the spotlight in 2005, when four of their members, including American Tom Fox, were abducted while working in Iraq. Little was heard about their situation for weeks; then a videotape was released showing three of the hostages, but not Fox – whose body was found shortly afterwards. Some commentators have called him and CPT “misguided,” or said that he “failed” – but they fundamentally misunderstand what Fox and his compatriots are trying to accomplish, and ignore the successes they are having. For it’s not enough to draw force onto yourself – that’s just the beginning. You then have to transform that force – and Tom Fox and his supporters have done just that. Though the media have reacted with bewilderment at the idea, they responded to Tom’s death not with calls for revenge but with “a force more powerful” – love and forgiveness – and have set an impressive example for the world to witness, and perhaps even to emulate.
Rachel Corrie, who worked with the International Solidarity Movement, was another person who “got in the way” – in her case, she got in the way of an Israeli bulldozer that was demolishing the home of a Palestinian family. A play about her life, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” that was going to be performed at a New York theater to commemorate the third anniversary of her death, was canceled, apparently under strong political pressure. In response, events sprang up across the country to spread Rachel’s message; see this memorial website for more information.
And nearly a year ago, on April 16, 2005, Marla Ruzicka of CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, www.civicworldwide.org), an activist who worked to support those caught in the crossfire in Iraq, was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
I’d like to suggest that humanitarians like Marla, Tom, and Rachel, who give up their lives in the service of others, should be recognized – though of course they would never have sought such recognition for themselves – with something on the order of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and/or its Congressional equivalent, the Congressional Gold Medal. I feel strongly that we need to spread the idea that there are other possible responses to conflict besides more violence, responses that are meaningful and that make a difference. We have to encourage society to honor sacrifices like those made by Tom, Rachel, and Marla at least as much as the sacrifices of those who fall while carrying arms.
It’s ironic that media coverage of Tom Fox’s death was quickly shunted aside by the death of Slobodan Milosevic, one of the more brutal humans to come down the pike in recent years. We have to ask, what do we want – more Tom Foxes, Rachel Corries, and Marla Ruzickas… or more Slobodan Milosevics? If the former, then we have to make sure that their message is heard, again and again, and that their courage is not forgotten. And we have to be ready ourselves to get in the way.