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Issue Date:  March 24, 2006

Called to 'courage in midst of fear'

Blog of Christian activist murdered in Iraq provides guidance for handling the tragedy


On March 10, the body of American Tom Fox, a 54-year-old father of two and a volunteer with Christian Peacemaker Teams, was found in a Baghdad, Iraq, neighborhood wrapped in a blanket and bearing torture marks and a bullet wound in the head.

Fox, not related to the Tom Fox who was editor and publisher of NCR, was abducted with three Christian Peacemaker colleagues Nov. 26, 2005. Over the course of three months, Fox’s abductors had threatened to kill all four hostages. In videos aired by the Arab Al Jazeera network, the four were seen alternately eating sweets, avoiding the camera, and pleading for their lives. Fox and a British colleague, Norman Kember, appeared in one video shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits. In the most recent video, aired before his body was found, Fox did not appear.

It’s the kind of dreadful cinematic tension that has become a signature of violence in Iraq. Before every tragedy there is a period of preparing for the worst. And then: the worst.

Well before his abduction and murder, Tom Fox was immersed in the worst of postinvasion Iraq. He lived in Baghdad on and off for more than two years with a rotating team of Christian Peacemaker volunteers documenting detainee abuse, advocating for human rights in the new Iraq, and accompanying vulnerable Iraqis through military checkpoints and border negotiations as they sought refugee status in less chaotic places.

Christian Peacemaker Teams, based in Chicago and Toronto, sends trained peacemakers to work in areas of lethal conflict around the world. The organization has been present in Iraq since October 2002, a few months before the U.S. invasion, providing firsthand, independent reports from the region, working with detainees of both U.S. and Iraqi forces, and training others in nonviolent intervention and human rights documentation.

In his Iraq blog, which he titled “Waiting in the Light,” Fox wrote often about the suffering all around him. In one post, he recounted several close encounters with random violence in Iraq, beginning with the story of a young Iraqi man who approached the team hoping for their help in delivering money he had raised for Fallujah’s hospitals and clinics. “During his visit,” Fox wrote, “he gave us the grim news that four people he knew have died in the last several days. The day before his visit the father of one of his friends became a target for kidnappers. When his friend’s father resisted, the kidnappers opened fire with their weapons, riddling his body with bullets. Our visitor had to help take the body to the morgue.

“Later, another young man who is both a college student and a journalist visited us. He told us that a car bomb detonated within several hundred feet of his house. No one in his family was injured, but two people driving near the booby-trapped car were killed. The driver died instantly but the passenger died as the young man and friends tried to get [the passenger] to a hospital.

“Yesterday we met with an Iraqi human rights worker who documents issues of detainee abuse. He gave us information about a 13-year-old boy who is being detained along with information on inhumane living conditions at the Multi-National Force detention camps,” Fox wrote.

By all accounts, Fox, a practicing Quaker for 22 years, handled his time in Iraq with grace. Sheila Provencher, who worked closely with Fox and the Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, wrote him a letter of thanks after she learned of his death:

“The night before I left Baghdad in November 2005, two nights before you were taken, you led the goodbye prayer service. You said to me, ‘I don’t know why, I just have this feeling that I want to do a Eucharist service for you. Don’t ask me why a Quaker would lead a Eucharist, but I have a feeling this is what we’re supposed to do.’ So we broke bread and drank grape juice and all shared the Communion prayer, men and women taking turns. … Afterward you joked about this being your first Communion, at age 54, and we took pictures of me giving you Communion, you kneeling like a devout altar boy. Laughing in the candlelight.”

In another remembrance, Joe Carr, who worked with Fox and the Christian Peacemakers in Iraq, wrote: “A young Iraqi friend and translator nicknamed him “Uncle Tom” because of his paternal but playful manner. He provided a calm and steady presence, and an open and compassionate ear. His warmth and humor helped me to hang on through my depressing and fearful time in Iraq.”

In his blog, Fox grappled openly with alternating feelings of rage and peace, ultimately leaving a sort of manual for loved ones and supporters trying to grasp the reality of his murder.

“The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of peacemaking work,” Fox wrote in an April 2005 post. “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.”

He continued: “How do I stay with the pain and suffering and not be overwhelmed? How do I resist the welling up of rage toward the perpetrators of violence? How do I keep from disconnecting from 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.”

Fox was not just facing the pain of the victim, he was in Iraq to confront the violence of the perpetrator. “If I am not to fight or flee in the face of armed aggression,” he wrote, “be it the overt aggression of the army or the subversive aggression of the terrorist, then what am I to do? ... Here in Iraq I struggle with that second form of aggression ... how do you stand firm against a car-bomber or a kidnapper?

“It seems easier somehow to confront anger within my heart than it is to confront fear. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am not to give in to either. I am to stand firm against the kidnapper, as I am to stand firm against the soldier. Does that mean I walk into a raging battle to confront the soldiers? Does that mean I walk the streets of Baghdad with a sign saying, ‘American for the Taking’? No to both counts. But if Jesus and Gandhi are right, then I am asked to risk my life and, if I lose it, to be as forgiving as they were when murdered by the forces of Satan. I struggle to stand firm but I’m willing to keep working at it.”

Perhaps Fox’s reflection on the 2004 abduction and murder of the beloved and experienced aid worker Margaret Hassan provides the most fitting epitaph in the shadow of his own dreadfully parallel fate:

“She lived a life with the people of Iraq,” Fox wrote, “not a life spent behind gates and walls. Finally it seems as if she gave away her life. Individuals who resort to any means in order to justify their ends appear to have taken it from her. ... CPT in Iraq prays that these individuals can reconnect with their humanity. We pray for healing for her family, friends and coworkers. We understand that the Quran teaches that an innocent person who is killed travels as quickly as does light to the gates of Paradise.

“While Margaret’s light may now be in Paradise her physical presence is no longer with the people of Iraq. We ask all people who have lived in her light and all who seek the light to resolve to continue the work she began. She lived a life of courage in the midst of fear. We are called to do the same, no matter what the consequences.”

For now, Christian Peacemaker Teams continues its work in Iraq. Three of Fox’s fellow captives and colleagues -- Jim Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, both of Canada and Norman Kember, 74, of the United Kingdom -- remain in captivity and are presumed alive.

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR writer living in New York. His e-mail address is

Related Web sites
Waiting in the Light, Tom Fox’s Iraq blog

Christian Peacemaker Teams

National Catholic Reporter, March 24, 2006

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