Witless for Peace

When I heard about the torture-murder of Quaker Peace Activist Tom Fox in Iraq, I couldn’t help thinking of two fictional episodes. The first was a scene from the first film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. In it, we have already beheld peace-loving earth people approach the ominous Martian spacecraft waving a white flag and making gestures of friendship and peace, only to be disintegrated by death rays. Next, here comes the local parson, fancying that maybe he can succeed where the others failed. So he clutches his Bible to his chest and recites the Lord’s Prayer as he paces toward the same flying saucer. Guess what? He’s rayed down, too. What was he thinking? Probably whatever Christian peace activist Tom Fox was thinking when he stepped into the Iraqi lion’s den.

Did the fictional parson and the late, quite real Mr. Fox believe they would be magically protected by their faith? If so, then I suggest we can accord their actions no greater respect than we do when we read that someone has died from venom during a snake-handling service. Both were shoved into the arms of utter rashness, fool-hardiness, by the dreamy considerations of their faith.

But then I think of the other episode, a hypothetical scenario from the ethics courses I used to teach. It had to do with just how self-sacrificing one had the obligation to be in a situation of scarcity. The scene is one in which a lone lifeboat remains afloat amid shark-infested waters. Someone swims up to your boat and wants to come aboard. You all tell him, no, there is no more room! He will capsize the boat and all will die! He grabs the side and tries to climb in anyway. What do you do? Do you grab the oar and beat him off with it? Or do you say, “No, wait, you can have my place!” And then jump? Congratulations! You have now thrown overboard the only person with a conscience among the survivors! You may rest assured that the guy who took your place will not show such a tender conscience toward the next person who tries to get into the boat!

I think Tom Fox jumped out of the boat. He threw his life away. I gladly admit he possessed the courage of his convictions, but his convictions were erroneous, as absolute pacifism always is. Heeding the impulse to become a martyr, the pacifist steps into the line of fire as if to say, “Goodbye, cruel world!” He is a creature of world-weary moral decadence. Not the kind of decadence that leads to debauchery, but the variety that is too good for the only world there is. At least the former kind of decadence has gusto! At least it is “yes’-saying, life-affirmative! By contrast, like Ignatius the martyr who begged his friends not to try to free him, and like the Cynic Proteus Peregrinus who threw himself into a funeral pyre, Fox’s kind of decadence is pale and world-negating. The pacifist is self-crucified on his ivory tower.

I cannot help comparing Fox’s pointless death, with the candle-lit vigils that will mark it, with the death of Nascar driver Dale Earnhardt. The late “Intimidator” has his own candle-lighting cult. But does he deserve it? How did he die? It was an auto crash during a race, something not altogether unexpected in such a sport. It is not much different from playing Russian Roulette. Do we venerate the hapless fools who perish in that “sport”? I don’t see why anyone would. To use Aristotle’s categories, you have to try to distinguish “bravery” from “foolhardiness.” And Earnhardt and Fox were foolhardy, not brave. The risks they took were self-gratifying daredevil stunts. I hope Fox is enjoying his golden Nascar trophy in the sky.

What motivates the sick souls of martyrs who wear a sign around their necks saying “Come get me!”? I think they are motivated by survivor guilt. They look at the world around them and see how fortunate they happen to be, compared with the wretched degradation of most of the world’s suffering masses. And they say to themselves, “What right have I to be well off and healthy when so many are not?” One feels not thankful but guilty, apparently afraid of the bad karma one is to accrue when the cosmic tables turn. And so as to get the great reversal of fortune out of the way, they jump out of the boat.

The priest in Camus’s The Plague died this way. He labored manfully helping the plague victims until he began to show (false, mimicked) symptoms himself. Finally he died of a disease he did not actually have because his neurotic conscience made him identify with the victims of the disease: who was he not to contract the plague when so many others did? So he negated that “privilege” by assuming their cross like Simon of Cyrene.

The poor of Saint Francis’s day saw easily what a pampered fool he was to have renounced affluence to embrace poverty, as if there were something noble in it. The real poor knew better. They would not have hesitated to take little Frankie’s place in the life boat.

Tom Fox’s fans no doubt feel somehow vindicated by an incident, his death, that should instead demonstrate beyond all doubt that their whole approach is a pathetic farce. Such activist-martyrdom only reinforces the grip of the wicked on the system by sacrificing the righteous to it. Will the terrorists be strangely moved to repent? No, they are already laughing about it. Martyr deaths of Fox’s sort do nothing to advance the cause of peace; they only reinforce the resolve of bloodthirsty fanatics who see correctly what we cannot bring ourselves to see: becoming too heavenly-minded has rendered the West impotent. To give Tom Fox’s death any honor or meaning at all, one must do the very thing Fox would have hated most: avenge him seventy-seven fold.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
April 2006


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