Quaker Hostage In Iraq: Tom Fox
The phone call came as I was driving home from a holiday weekend in Brooklyn, headed to Fayetteville NC. It was ten years ago today, November 27, 2005.
It was John Stephens, a younger Friend from Alexandria. The call was unexpected. And his message was a shock: our friend Tom Fox, who had been working in Iraq with a group called the Christian Peacemaker Teams, had been kidnapped in Baghdad the day before, along with three other CPT workers there.
The Iraq war was already close to me: I was Director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, a Friends peace project near Fort Bragg. I had dealt with many soldiers who had been scarred by it. I knew those who were or had been in jail because of resistance to it. I had visited in Toronto with troops who had crossed the border to Canada to refuse deployment, and was following their fight to stave off being deported by a hostile Canadian regime.
But this was different. Tom Fox was a Friend, and my friend. We had worshipped together at Langley Hill in McLean, Virginia, near CIA headquarters. His two kids were the same ages as my younger two, and were buds. He had been very kind to me when my marriage broke up in 1994.
And kidnappings of civilian journalists and humanitarian workers in Iraq were becoming increasingly common, and the fates of many hostages were gruesome. Some had been killed, shot before video cameras, even a couple beheaded.
Good God, I said to John Stephens. What are we going to do? what CAN we do?
John had no answers. But he also knew Tom well, probably better than me. Tom had worked with him at a growing Whole Foods store in northern Virginia. Despite Tom’s quiet, unassertive demeanor, he became a mentor to John both professionally, as a Whole Foods manager; personally, as a young parent; and spiritually, as a new Quaker.
The spring before, Tom had steered John to Quaker House, where at Tom’s recommendation I had taken him on as an intern.
John had been a very creative and productive intern, designing a character, Sgt. Abe, for our “Truth In Recruiting” efforts.
He also showed himself a brilliant as a self-taught webweaver.
As John remembers, that Friday,
“I received the last letter I would ever get from my friend Tom Fox.
“When that email came to me on Friday, I was still savoring the warmth and leftovers of my family’s Thanksgiving celebration, and there was nothing in Tom’s message to forebode events to come. Tom’s letter, in fact, was mostly mundane, though with a hint of bitter irony: Despite the ongoing violence and unyielding danger in Baghdad following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Tom reported that several NGOs asked Christian Peacemaker Teams for guidance in returning to Iraq.”
Tom had taken two of the four soon-to-be hostages, newcomers on a twelve-day visit, to pay calls on a couple of nearby mosques; that’s when they were waylaid by the kidnappers: A car blocked their way, gunmen leaped out, ordered their driver and translator out, and then drove the four to captivity in their own car.
Of course, we realized, there was little, or probably nothing we could do, several thousand miles away, living in the “enemy” culture (and religion), speaking a different language, and with little in the way of resources.
Besides that, the CPT office was telling those who had heard the story to keep quiet about it, hinting that secret negotiations were underway which could win the release of the four any minute now.
But doing nothing was not what I was used to, nor was it any ease for John’s anxiety. And as we made inquiries, it seemed less and less likely that there really was anything going on “behind the scenes.”
For one thing, I noted, while the CPT veterans talked a good game about defying danger and risking all for peace, they had not dealt with an actual hostage situation before, and why should we think they now knew what to do? The first thing we heard from them included a statement that the four were not “hostages” but “guests” of their, um, unexpected hosts.
[“Guests”?? I never bought it; speak truth, folks.]
For another, such secret negotiations usually revolved around settling on an amount of ransom money to be paid for the hostages’ release — and CPT was on record that it did not and never would pay ransom (and it was a hand-to-mouth operation anyway, with little money to fork over in any case). So what did it have to negotiate with?
Besides, we were soon in touch with a professor of Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Lisa Schirch, who knew experienced hostage negotiators in many places, and through her we sought their expert advice. Further, Tom Fox had studied nonviolent strategy with her before he left for Iraq; she was a friend of Tom’s too. We asked: were there useful alternatives to this enforced silence?
Besides which, the silence was doomed. The group of four included citizens of three major countries. Within twenty-four hours, news professionals from various national and international media were on the story, and a major Canadian newspaper soon broke the silence.
Then the next day, November 29, a video was released by the captors, a previously unknown group calling themselves “The Swords of Righteousness Brigade,” which called them “spies” deserving of death. The cloak of silence was ripped wide open.
Yet CPT still told people like us to keep quiet; and the American Friends Service Committee added its voice, as did officials of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, of which Tom was a member.
Frankly, this “advice” sounded more and more to me like sheer panic; it also reflected de minimis practical knowledge of what was now involved.
Lisa Schirch also got back to us quickly, but with a sharply different viewpoint: her experts viewed the enforced silence as throwing away real assets that we could use, to mount support effort for them. Instead, they urged us to undertake a highly public effort to make the four visible and sympathetic — emphasizing that they were not spies, nor were they missionaries, seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity; that they had opposed the U.S. invasion from the beginning, and killing them would actually harm many Iraqi Muslims, whom they had been attempting to help.
And if we had any contacts among Muslims, to urge them to speak up as well. And to do all this as loudly and as publicly as possible.
This was the total opposite of the “silent strategy” that had been urged for several days, with no results. There were no guarantees that this new approach would save them either. But it made much more sense.
Talking this over with John on the evening of December 1, an idea surfaced: what about creating a website and an online petition for their release as our contribution? Yes. As the experienced webweaver, John knew what to do.
Today this idea might seem almost humdrum. But then it was stunning to me, as was the execution: within two hours, John had created and uploaded a website, freethecaptivesnow.org , and on it was a public petition calling on the captors to let them go, and links to public statements calling for the release of the four captives. We began spreading the word (and there wasn’t even Facebook or Twitter to do it).
This website turned out to be the main Quaker response, but we were hardly alone. Lisa’s strategy caught on within hours, and for the first several days of December, as a new deadline for a threatened execution of the four approached, there was a growing international chorus of such statements.
Even from very militant Muslim groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and others, came calls to respect and release these four peace workers who had respected Muslims in Iraq and Palestine (where CPT also worked, and Tom Fox had visited).
Our online petition, along with another, soon gathered more than 50,000 signatures from around the world. There were vigils and rallies, including a joint Quaker-Muslim gathering and vigil at a large mosque in Washington
While John and I were still terrified for our friends, the swelling response made this an exciting period. Still no guarantees, I told myself every day, but we can do something, and we are doing it.
On December 8, the major deadline announced for executing Tom and the others passed, and we learned they were still alive. We began to breathe again, and momentum shifted.
The flurry of statements died down; news reports soon dwindled and became routine; and from Baghdad there was mostly ominous silence about our friends. Amid the noise and cries of spreading civil war, the fact that they were alive yesterday was no guarantee about tomorrow.
For John and me, at the website, frantic effort to beat a deadly deadline was replaced by keeping a continuing vigil. But there were still many visitors, all with one question on their minds: “Any news about our friends?”
We had the same question. So night after night, through what is called the “Holiday Season,” and into the new year, either John or I would scan dozens of wire service reports, despatches that almost never surfaced in the major media here, for news of Tom and the others, and post what we found: with only a few exceptions, the news was “no news,” which was a kind of “good news.”
But we also found much more. This was during the months in which the U.S. government was still putting out the line that the Iraq invasion of 2003 had been a glorious victory, with only a few “dead-end” holdouts still defying it.
Yet night after night we read, in obscure news dispatches which rarely made the columns of either print or TV news, that in fact there was a spreading prairie fire of rebellion against the occupation, as well as sickeningly vicious inter-Muslim warfare across Baghdad and Iraq. These were a hard and depressing education, but it was a necessary one for us to speak truth to those, dozens and sometimes hundreds, who checked the site nightly to see “what news” there was, if any, of our friends.
It was wearying, but we couldn’t stop. The four were likely in as much danger from this war among factions within Iraq as from the resistance to the U.S. presence.
There’s more to this story, which will come in future posts. The captivity of Tom and the others is ten years past; yet it is not past at all.