Christian Peacemaker Team’s Kidnapping: Who Did It?

Virtually all the commentary on the abduction of Christian Peacemaker Teams workers in Iraq has focused on some notion that the abductors, Swords of Righteousness Brigade, represent a another fringe Muslim movement which is consumed with the romance of terror and wrecking the project of rebuilding Iraq. Inquiries from thoughtful people of good will have come to me requesting insight on the sources and reasons of hostage taking in Iraq. If and when we discover who did it, we will have to face the shadowy world culture that gives rise to terrorism.

This may be the time to pause for a moment and examine what we understand world wide as the culture of terror. In my travels I have noticed people do not immediately distinguish between state supported terror and terror that may grow out of groups remotely affiliated with state power or clearly independent. The use of terror in the support of military objectives has been associated with war for 5000 years. Roman legions, Genghis Khan and their predecessors including Alexander the Great resorted to wanton destruction of property, rape, and pillaging of civilian populations in their campaigns to conquer and subdue the enemy. Both Christian and Muslim backed official and unofficial movements refined these practices to purify their narrow understanding of the faith and to claim or protect holy sites.

In the wake of enlightenment thinking, particularly in Prussia with Frederick the Great there were efforts to develop properly uniformed and disciplined armies who would not mix so crudely with civilians. International gatherings began to tentatively formulate rules of warfare to protect civilians and prisoners, and to place limits on armies of occupation. In a broad historical sense this movement to bring the destructiveness of war under a web of containment remind us of similar efforts to define just war promoted by St. Augustine in the fourth century. After three centuries of attempting to practice pacifism the church became the religion of the empire and in this new context the church could not immediately dispense with the Biblical notion that Christians should not kill, that in fact God’s love should be visible as believers walked in the light, and that enemy loving must be practiced as a fundamental tenet of the faith.

In the so called Christian west there are modern efforts to bring boundaries to war by enlightenment internationalists and the inheritors of just war thinking. Various covenants and protocols are in place that prescribe treatment of detainees and guidelines on the treatment of civilians for armies of occupation. In the wake of this growing body of international law and the recovery of enemy loving teachings among Christians, governments have resorted to two track war making.

The public face of war making are the uniformed soldiers with their attendant weapons of modern warfare including all kinds of high tech equipment often justified as being inherently less destructive. The other track, the shadow side, contains war making at much more vicious level that can be regarded as the application of terror on enemy populations including civilians. Many of us choose to see the visible expressions of the security state, the uniformed soldier, but are mystified by or choose not to believe that “civilized” nations Christian, Muslim or Jewish, practice assassination, torture, destruction of whole cities with dimly lit underworld programs.

Despite the fact that thoughtful military historians report that these expressions of terror rarely achieve the desired ends of national security, planners and politicians continue to use these means. When national leaders speak of total war they mean the application of uniformed military strength as well as the use of assassination squads, programs of terror, lethal means of interrogation, and the real and symbolic destruction of cities like Fallujah. Total war includes the use of both above ground diplomatic or military means of influencing the political process as well as underground threats, assassinations and support of violent change when it is deemed necessary to achieve national security end. Anything goes.

This two track policy is nowhere more obvious than in unfolding of the American experience of nationhood, the first political experiment of the enlightenment, a design which at its core still fascinates people around the world and gives hope that tyranny can be overthrown, despite the fact that the United States achieved nationhood at the expense of a total war against a native population and the absence of participation of slaves and women in the body politic.

In WW II the carpet bombing of German cities and the atomic bombing in Japan gave new meaning to total war,. With the use of shadowy operatives, in countries around the world from Iran to Guatemala movements have been thwarted, annihilated, overturned.

When movements, armed and unarmed are considered anathema to national security interests they may be attacked with weapons and paramilitary bodies from the shadows. In the US and elsewhere this covert style was adapted for domestic purposes and applied to Dr. Martin Luther King and others through disinformation campaigns. The wrecking of movements by shadowy covert war with its attendant disrespect for civilians and any rules of war is one of the single most significant contributors to the culture of terrorism in which we now try to work.

The point of observing this cursory history of modern total war is this. American people understand their government has legitimate national security concerns and they believe that these concerns are generally acted upon with restrained use of warfare in the spirit of their “enlightened” constitution. While the people of the world know about the US constitution they have also been the recipients, for the past 100 years and longer of the shadow side of total war.

In the US when I speak about grass roots peacemaking in other parts of the world people ask me, “Why do they hate us?” more than any other question. I set about the task of explaining and I can see some eyes look down or glaze over, perhaps in the hope that assassinations, My Lai, Abu Ghraib and wanton destruction are the exceptions, rather than the consistent pattern rising from state sponsored programs. Many of the people of the world, particularly the Muslim world who have experienced the shadowy war directly do not see Americans quite as separated from the culture of terror as Americans perceive themselves.

Total war has meant the use of atomic weapons only once but it has meant the repeated use of a full basket of tricks from the shadow. Political leaders who make policy in neat little packages of 2 years, 4 years or 6 years, believe that the basket of tricks from the shadow side will achieve results quickly within their election time-frame. It will take generations and massive grass roots work to reverse this course.

Why do people hate Americans? Jealousy because of American economic life or technological energy? No! In my experience it has more to do with the fact that people think Americans can’t be trusted, because of direct or indirect experience with the shadow side American government war making. Little wonder that one of the most visible and accessible symbols of American presence, the Embassy becomes less and less secure every year.

American people and their supporters around the world don’t want to hear about the shadow side of the American story. It is too painful and wrenching. For some it puts the entire democratic experiment at risk.

Some embrace a fictionalized modern version of a God of war and implant that version on the Bible as well as on the United State thereby elevating the American experiment to cosmic proportions. For others the integration of the shadow carries with it too many new obligations. For others the acknowledgment of this underside signals new hope. New energy always comes to the human heart when the cosmos starts to make sense again because of the acknowledgment of shadowy ghosts that can hold power over us.

In 2003 I watched from within Iraq and then from the safety of our country as the bombings of the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, CARE International and the Jordanian embassies rocketed throughout Bagdad resulting in the wholesale evacuation of non government organizations, as well as the diplomatic community many of whom had expressed deep reservation about the American occupation of Iraq. I viewed with horror the pleas of hostages and personally listened to families who had members disappear due to house raids and official US government operations. I do not believe that the entire culture of terror in Iraq can be attributed to state sponsored terrorism arising from any single state. But, I do believe that the fact of terror in Iraq is in part due to the world wide culture of the shadow side of total war practiced for the last 60 years.

As a civilian worker in Viet Nam and later as a participant observer in Central America and other international situations I know that my country has long had within its control, strategies and organized forces schooled in the basic tactics of modern terror, assassination and arms length killing. The situation in Iraq invites questions of when these tactics are being applied there. I do not know who planned and carried out the four bombings to which I referred but I do know that I reserve judgement for some distant time when courageous journalists and able scholars will thread with care the tapestry of now hidden information pertaining to this era. I do not know who the group, Swords for Righteousness Brigade, is. I do know that I will reserve judgement until a future time when more is known of this specific group. Finally, I know from thousands of conversations in so many countries that people with experience with America’s shadowy wars will also be waiting for that day of reckoning. The truth may present another opportunity for the American people to acknowledge the weight of our nation’s burdens now hidden in the shadows, and thus make real change.

Terrorist movements have grown out of Christian and Muslim as well as other religious contexts through the centuries. Guerilla movements of liberation have at times also resorted to terror of civilian populations. But the use of terror anywhere always bites back with defeat, if not immediately, in future generations. Those who practice and design terror develop callouses and hearts of stone that can only be repaired with complete confession and a change in direction.

In Iraq I watched as the American government searched for methods that would hide detainee matters from the light of responsible inquiry. From the record we know of American efforts to skirt and reinterpret international covenants that guide war making. The record is clear that the designers of this war believe that since America now has power it should use it, a doctrine that pays little attention to the history of the effects of the dirty underside of war making, nor holds real promise for security in the future. I note with great concern the emergence of a culture of terror that has taken over so much of Iraq, resulting in anguish for Iraqi citizens and internationals who try to help. There is cause for rigorous inquiry into matters related to United States sponsored terror in Iraq, whether it is carried out by US forces or other operatives under the direct command of the United States President or emboldened by training initiatives of the United States.

I believe that as citizens, and participants in the experiment of democracy, a project like the rebuilding of Iraq that purports to create a framework for less violent, more just, nationhood we owe it to one another to vigorously explore these matters. I would caution all of us to proceed in a way that does not unduly increase the level of paranoia that is inherent in such an inquiry. Rather let us proceed in the spirit of truth, recognizing that truth based on real facts will contribute to the freedom and wholeness of all of us, and maybe begin a process of reconciliation.

I write as many citizens of the United State are beginning the Christmas celebration, of the arrival of the Prince of Peace as a baby. I will join with millions of Americans in that celebration but I know, according to Scripture, that in a matter of weeks following Christ’s birth the order went out to exterminate male children because one of those children was thought to be a Prince with a program of peace, that was suspected of lacking a reliable allegiance to the Roman empire or its local ruling puppet. Variations of state sponsored terrorism have been repeated through the centuries in many permutations until the present. I know that there are expressions of terrorism that are not under the control of any single state. The democratic experiment in Iraq which must show some success before the next election cycle will be paper thin if it relies on the underside of American war strategies. At best it will be a state built in the image of Saddam but with a few more democratic decorations. At worst it will crumble as a nation. I have placed the question about who abducted the CPT members in the larger context of terrorism as the shadow culture of the state. So, rather than asking who carried out the abduction, I invite us to broaden the question to what we will do about the culture of terrorism.

Until last year when he retired, Gene Stoltzfus was the director of Christian Peacemaker Teams and in that capacity frequently was in Iraq with the team. For ideas and reflections on CPTers being held in Baghdad and other peace initiatives check his blog at Email Gene at