Why the Christian Peacemakers were right to go to Iraq

First, I’ll give the floor to British peace activist Bruce Kent, who had the following to say on the Beeb about his fellow activist, Norman Kember, who was recently freed after over 100 days as a hostage:

…I still believe Norman was right to go to Iraq – and I don’t think that he will regret having gone. And here’s why.

Norman totally, bitterly, opposed the invasion of Iraq and all that was done there. He could see there were a lot of people in Iraq who were hurting and suffering, who had lost relations or been imprisoned. Whatever their nationality, our job as Christians and as people interested in peace was to offer help and consolation to people who were suffering. That was Norman’s basic wish.

He also wanted to show a kind of British solidarity – to demonstrate that we were not a country which was united in favour of what had been done. It was a common Christian humanity that inspired Norman; that these were people who were suffering. He wanted to go and help.

This is not, of course, an exclusively Christian prerogative. We do not have a monopoly on compassion – in fact I think it’s everyone’s duty to help those who in need. But we as Christians are commanded to be concerned about the suffering and imprisonment of others – it’s an explicit mandate to us.

I know people will say Norman shouldn’t have put himself in danger in the first place. There is, however, a comparison they don’t make. They don’t ask if it’s right for instance, for a young soldier to go to Iraq to do his duty. We send out government people and contractors and God knows who else as well as soldiers, and they all take major risks, some of them for commercial reasons and some for political or other purposes.

Some go because they think armies are the best way to keep peace – I’m not judging their motives. But why shouldn’t people who have a different approach towards justice and peace also take risks?

That’s exactly Norman’s position. Over the years, he and I have met dozens of times on one peace campaign or activity or another, whether it’s about the arms trade or nuclear weapons. But he felt – and it came through in many of his writings – that it was in a sense a bit easy to write letters and hold placards and go on demonstrations and write to your MP. He felt a call, a kind of vocation, to do something a bit more direct. And that’s what led him to go out there.

Even when it looked very dark, I don’t think he would have regretted going for one minute. As a human, of course, he would have been absolutely scared. The awful thought of one of his friends being taken out and shot, which he and his fellow hostages must have known about, would have meant an enormous amount of anguish.

He would also have been very deeply upset knowing what his wife would have been through. But I don’t think he would ever have regretted going.

He might now ask himself if anything positive has come out of the whole ordeal. It has. There’s a great deal of awareness now of what’s going on in Iraq – not just because of him, but he’s certainly contributed to it. What’s specific to Norman’s case is a new understanding between Muslims here in this country and the peace and human rights campaign here.

We might have been separate in the past, but the Muslim community has been so helpful and so co-operative here, it needs as many thanks as anyone else. Of course I would like to thank the Foreign Office and, if it was the military that helped free him, then them too. But the Muslim community has really behaved in a wonderful way.

Messages came from all over the world – from all sorts of organisations and people. Most remarkable, perhaps, was that we had a message from an alleged terrorist in a high security prison, and even from a proscribed organisation in Egypt. It was all very heartening and very helpful.

(My own emphasis added to those passages which I believe speak most strongly for themselves.)

And now, to dissect some of the comments from the detractors. Here’s one from a guy in Edinburgh:

Norman Kember was not right to go. Nor did he have a “right” to go. I am anti the war in Iraq, totally, but Mr Kember went to a war zone and in doing so, not only de facto endangered himself, but also the lives of those seeking to gain his freedom. Showing solidarity is one thing; interfering in a theatre of war is tantamount to sabotage in something that is already an obscene mess.

It begs the question here: what is meant by “tantamount to sabotage”? If the war is already “an obscene mess”, then a “sabotage” like Norman Kember’s act (and those of his fellow activists) is not a further complication of the Gordian knot, but a move to cut it. In other words, it is the right thing to do, no matter how “wrong” it may seem at the time. If “interference” is what it takes to get people off their duffs to stop the war, then so be it!

And here’s another, from a guy in Ottawa:

Whilst I wholeheartedly welcome the wonderful news of Mr Kember’s release, I feel very strongly that individuals who decide to go to such dangerous places, do so entirely at their own risk. It often appears that both the hostages, their families and their supporters expect their national governments to move heaven and earth to secure their release. A release that would not have been necessary if the individual had not ignored common sense advice not go there in the first place. The risk to other people, most notably the hard working men and women of the Armed Forces and Security Services, is just not worth it in the long run.

Yes, the family and supporters of Mr. Kember DID expect the government(s) to “move heaven and earth” to secure his release, but that is not all they expected and it is certainly not all that they still expect. They still expect that the government(s) will decide that sending soldiers to risk being killed (and not just in the act of freeing hostages like Norman Kember, Harmeet Singh Sooden and James Loney, but in killing Iraqis–or anyone else) is not worth it anymore. This isn’t just about the peacemakers; it’s about ALL the lives being lost in Iraq, and indeed to war, period.

And it is absolute bosh to say Norman Kember “ignored common sense”. People, Norman Kember is in his 70s. He’s old enough to be well aware of the risks, particularly the extra ones that can befall an elderly man. But he’s been a pacifist for over 50 years, and in that time, he’s seen enough of the easy way, as Bruce Kent points out, to be thoroughly tired of the less-drastic and less-effectual approach! Trust me–he knew exactly what he was doing. That may not be “common sense”, but sometimes, uncommon sense is better. For only a person of uncommon sense would have the wit to do something so powerful to mobilize forces on not one but several continents against this wasteful, sinful war.

Someone from Switzerland writes:

When you take a decision to leave the safe and controlled areas of the world you take the responsibility for your own safety. I’m glad Norman Kember was recovered, but he bears a responsibility for the efforts that went into recovering him. I ski and believe that you have a right to go beyond the safely marked areas, however when you pass beyond the signs you take that responsibility yourself, if a rescue team needs to be sent out you bear the responsibility for that.

Uh, dude…this wasn’t a ski trip. Kember wasn’t in this for a lark. He knew his life was at risk, but he felt it was worth it if he could personally help someone over there, instead of just making out a cheque to an aid organization. Maybe you should educate yourself as to what he was actually doing in Iraq.

And a lad from Leicester writes:

Bruce Kent says Mr Kember will still believe he was right to go. Surely the important question is whether those brave soldiers who risked their lives rescuing him think he was right to go.

Well, if it comes down to that, don’t ask it of Norman Kember or anyone reading this. Ask it of the soldiers themselves. But here, for what it’s worth, is my take: If what Mr. Kember did spurs even one soldi
er to think twice and conscientiously object to being sent into battle, it was right. And if I were a soldier myself, I’d prefer to be a rescuer of peaceniks (misguided or not), rather than a killer of innocents.

And from Newcastle (UK), comes this bit of nonsense:

Could someone elaborate on just what the difference Mr. Kember thought he was going to make? Its a nice idea, but rather egotistical. Putting oneself at risk, and others, and worrying family and friends… to achieve what? No, I’m convinced that one did not say it was for religious reasons doing what he did would get one sectioned under the mental health act. I mean what sort of state mental has he got himself, and his close ones, into. It’s just shoddy thinking on his part.

This is just shoddy thinking itself, on so many levels. What is mentally unhealthy about believing in peace, and laying down one’s own life to help others? “Greater love hath no man than this…”, remember?

And if Norman Kember were truly just an egotist, as this detractor seems to think he is, he’d have stayed home and found some less risky means to self-promotion. As I understand it, egotists want to live to enjoy their fame and notoriety–unless they really are mentally ill, like Sylvia Plath, whose poetry didn’t reach its full stature in the eyes of readers until after she’d stuck her head in an oven and turned on the gas. But that was tragic and a waste of a fine, productive life. What Norman Kember did was the opposite: he tried to save others’ lives, not just immolate his own. No tragedy there, but a definite triumph for which his ego will receive the very least of the gratification.

And now, a semiliterate followed by a halfwit:

i have no sympathy for people who go to war zones, get them selfs kidnapped then risk our armed forces lives to get them out when their job is hard enough already, perhaps this will teach him and others like him not to meddle in foreign affairs

* * *

I’d glad Norman Kember is alive and free. He is an unfortunate misguided man, who put his own life and those of others in great danger. He should not meddle in things he quite obviously does not understand.

Tell ya what, you two: if you understand things so much better, then go enlist in the army yourselves. Show the rest of us how things ought to be done, if you think you know it. Better still, just go and be harshly disabused of your callow and facile misconceptions. But don’t you DARE tell us that Norman Kember did not understand what he was about.

And here’s a piece of throw-away arrogance from a Londoner:

Rescued at great expense to the tax payers of three countries, By the very forces that he protests against. Speak out by all means. But don’t go to war zones if you are not experienced.

And you, sir: Are YOU “experienced”? No? Then shut the fuck up. Norman Kember was not protesting against the FORCES, he was protesting against the WAR which is still KILLING THE FORCES. A vital and not terribly subtle distinction you don’t bother to make, perhaps lacking experience in the simple act of using your own damn head.

BTW, you should see what the WAR is costing the taxpayers. Norman Kember’s rescue is tiddlywinks compared to that.

And finally, from someone in Leeds:

Predictably, not one mention of the troops who freed Mr Kember. Apparently Mr Kent is more pleased with the ‘helpful’ support of a terrorist than with the men who freed his friend. I guess you won’t publish this though.

Uh, dude…maybe there’s a good reason the troops who freed him weren’t “mentioned”, whatever a “mention” entails in your eyes. As I understand it, they were not just ANY troops, they were elite commandos. To reveal their identities at this stage would be to compromise their safety in any subsequent rescue missions they may have to undertake. (Surely all those who slammed Mr. Kember for putting their lives at risk must appreciate that–and if you don’t, kindly extract head from rectum now. Their lives have been at risk for as long as they’ve been in the military–or at the very least, as long as they’ve been on this secret task force. This is their job, people!)

Plus, there’s the salient fact that the peacemakers didn’t want violence and conflict used to rescue them. It’s a good thing that the forces who rescued them were able to honor that request. Let that not get lost in the shuffle.

And of course, by this time, Norman Kember HAS publicly given thanks, so I daresay your complaint was a little…um…premature.

As for the terrorist prisoner who spoke out–well, if even HE could be moved to show support for an “infidel” like Mr. Kember, then there’s hope. Yes, even for him. And for the Muslim Brotherhood, too. It may not excuse or make up for whatever else they’ve done, but it is definitely a testament to the power of Mr. Kember’s act to win the hearts and minds of the others over there–and don’t for one second believe that doesn’t count. If it stops even ONE angry Muslim from taking up terrorism against the West, it’s a victory.

Finally, to all you war-cheerleaders out there reading this: Be thankful for the Norman Kembers of this world. They are doing their damnedest to make a difference over there so that neither you, nor your descendants, will ever know the terror of war at home. I may not think your sorry, self-absorbed lives are worth it, but they apparently do…and for that, I bless them.

You should, too.

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