Saturday, April 01, 2006

John Roughan: Why pacifism is either dangerous or dishonest

Suppose, just suppose, you had been brave, mad, messianic or narcissistic enough to believe you could bring some peace to Iraq by presenting yourself there as an opponent of the Western occupation, protected only by your Christian pacifism.

And suppose that having ventured beyond the "green zone" of central Baghdad, the only part of Iraq the occupiers really control, you had fairly quickly fallen into the clutches of hoods who called themselves something like the Sword of Righteousness, and they held you smocked and shackled, another pawn for some wildly forlorn demand on the Western powers.

Imagine you spent every minute of every sleepless hour of the next 118 days wondering if this minute would be your last.

Try now to dispel the frightful image of a beheading that probably came to your mind the first time you heard that militants in Iraq favoured that form of execution. Then try to imagine trying to dispel that image if you were captive in a hot room in Iraq.

Think of the blessed relief of a few minutes in which your tired mind drifted on to another subject - any other subject.

Think of the moment they took one of your companions away, and the hours and days that he didn't return.

And then suppose that one fine day, after nearly four months of mental torture, the Sword suddenly was not there and the next armed men you saw were saving you. Do you think that when you got home you would sit down and write this?

"During my captivity, I sometimes entertained myself by imagining this day. Sometimes I despaired of ever seeing it. Always I ached for it. And so here we are ...

"It was a terrifying, profound, powerful, transformative and excruciatingly boring experience. Since my release from captivity, I have been in a constant state of wonder, bewilderment and surprise as I slowly discover the magnitude of the effort to secure our lives and our freedom ... "

So began Canadian Jim Loney in a statement posted on the Christian Peacemaker Teams' website on Monday. His fellow survivors, Norman Kember in Britain and Harmeet Sooden here, confined themselves to brief formal statements of relief and pleaded for time to get their thoughts together.

Sooden gave a press conference in Auckland yesterday. Painfully quiet and occasionally faltering he read a prepared statement.

"The primary reason for my participation in the Christian peacemaker Team Iraq delegation was to bear witness to the suffering of Iraqi people living under a harsh military occupation, and to provide an alternative narrative, based on humanitarian principles, to the people of New Zealand."

Many at the press conference would want to ask about his captivity, he said. "I choose to ask a more important question: what are the consequences of an illegal Anglo-American occupation, with the complicity of a host of Western institutions, including the New Zealand Government, on ordinary human beings living in Iraq?"

Then he answered real questions. Was he frightened? For the first week, yes. Then again when an incident happened around the house sometime later.

What were their guards like? One was a farmer and fed them well. The youngest, whose family had been killed, was very volatile. The other one he didn't think had done this sort of thing before.

These people are strangely serene. After an experience like theirs I would be making no sense. I'd be spinning between shock and ecstasy, sombre one moment, jabbering the next.

I'd be delirious with relief, shaken at the indignities done by captivity, intoxicated with life and freedom and indescribably grateful to those who had saved me.

But these people are pacifists. Ever since we started getting grainy pictures of the group in Baghdad I've been asking myself the question, what is it about pacifism that gets up our nose? I know it does. Newspapers are attuned to these things and Sooden's plight did not strike a chord of unequivocal sympathy.

This might be surprising in a society whose proudest defence policy is unabashedly pacifist. The anti-nuclear position, as promulgated by David Lange in speeches at the time, and most popularly in the much acclaimed Oxford Union debate, declared that New Zealand does not wish to be defended by nuclear weapons.

That means, in theory at least, that if ever we face a nuclear threat we have renounced the protection of a reciprocal threat. Quite what we would do, our defence policy doesn't say. Fortunately, any nuclear-armed adversary would assume, quite rightly, that we would ditch pacifism at the first whiff of serious trouble and appeal for the Anzus umbrella.

Pacifism gets up the nose because it is either dangerous or fundamentally dishonest. It is dangerous if so many citizens seriously subscribe to it that collective security cannot be underpinned, as it has to be, by military power. It is not so dangerous if, like Nuclear Free New Zealand, it is fundamentally dishonest.

The Christian Peacemaker organisation declares that if its members get into trouble in war zones it does not want them rescued with violence. But when Sooden and friends were taken by the Sword of Righteousness, an apt title as it turned out, the Christian Peacemakers were sensible about it.

They accepted the help of the occupying forces and did not protest at all when their members were rescued by soldiers bearing the means of meeting danger with deadly weapons.

Pacifism is a perfectly good and practical policy up to a point. Most people adopt it in response to a personal threat. But for the same reason, most people do not deliberately put themselves in harm's way.

Sooden said yesterday: "My experience in Iraq has reinforced my belief that the true impediment to peace is violence, regardless of whether it be the violence of an occupying army or the violence of an insurgent group which uses kidnapping to finance its resistance.

"If one is serious about peace one should be prepared to take the same risks for peace as for war. I continue to hold this conviction" - dangerous and costly as it may be for those who must try to save him.


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