Quaker Theology #28 - Spring-Summer 2016
Tom Fox: In Memoriam
Introduction, by Chuck Fager
John Stephens called me with the news, on November 26, 2005: Tom Fox
and three other members of the Christian peacemaker Teams’ group in
Baghdad had been kidnaped. In the summer of 2005 John was an intern at
Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where I was Director.
When he was applying for an internship, I asked him for a letter of
reference; the reference came by email from Tom Fox, in Baghdad.
John knew Tom from their time working together at a large health food
store. I met Tom in the early 1990s at Langley Hill Friends meeting in
McLean, Virginia, where we were both members. I didn’t know him
especially well, but his children were the same ages as my younger two,
and the four of them grew up in that meeting, conspiring to torment a
generation of First Day School teachers, on many a First Day morning.
Tom was also very kind to me at some moments of personal need.
Tom’s path to Iraq and an ignominious death was straightforward. We
talked about it in August, 2005 when I saw him for the final time.
It was at the annual sessions of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, our regional Quaker conference, in Harrisonburg Virginia.
Spiritually, Baltimore Yearly Meeting had long been home to both of us.
The body operates three summer camps, and Tom had been active with
them, serving as cook at one. He had also been a “Friendly Adult
Presence” (or FAP) with the yearly meeting’s youth group, even filling
in as interim youth staffperson for a period. At the yearly meeting
sessions, he frequently worked with the children’s program. Indeed, if
it had not been for his leading toward CPT and Iraq, any biography of
Tom would have been much more about youth work than peace witness as
When we met in Harrisonburg in 2005, Tom was between tours in Iraq, and we shared a meal and did some catching up.
We talked first about kids, as older dads will do. His Andrew and
Kassie, my Guli and Asa, are in their thirties now, scattered across
the continent, but still in touch. A few years back, our sons started a
Quaker Hip Hop group called the Friendly Gangstaz Committee. The band
caused quite a stir in our small, staid Quaker world, with its
startling, shouted renditions of well-worn hymns like “Simple Gifts.”
Tom and I chuckled ruefully about that.
We also talked about work. From that same faith community, Tom and I
had traveled somewhat parallel paths, trying to be true to the meaning
of texts like, “Blessed are the peacemakers,”(Matthew 5:9) and “seek
peace and pursue it.”(Proverbs 34:14)
How do you “pursue peace” in a violent world? My own seeking had led,
after a series of conventional jobs, to Fayetteville and Quaker House,
a long-standing peace project hard by Fort Bragg, one of the largest
U.S. military bases, and home to many of the most lethal and secretive
Tom had grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, then did twenty years in
the Marine band in Washington DC, playing bass clarinet – about as
unmilitary a soldier as one could feature. He began attending Friends
meetings during this time. After the Marine band, he became a baker and
manager at a growing health food supermarket. He was good at this, and
his bosses wanted him to move up into management.
But Tom heard a “different drummer,” especially after September 11,
2001. With two wars on, he felt called to “pursue peace” in a concrete
way. After much prayer and reflection, he joined the Christian
Peacemaker Teams (CPT).
CPT sets out to bring the “weapons of the spirit” into the front lines
of conflict, places where often death and life are but a hair’s breadth
apart. Tom’s first assignment took him to Iraq. For a respite, he
visited the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
This was dangerous work, in a region where conflicts seem
hopelessly intractable. Tom stuck with it. Then, as the Iraq occupation
shifted from the foolish illusion of “mission accomplished” to the
grinding facts of guerilla and civil war, he headed back there.
After Tom was kidnaped, along with Canadians James Loney and Harmeet
Sooden, and British pacifist Norman Kember, conservative radio host
Rush Limbaugh sneered that “part of me likes this,” because, “I like
any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality.”
What was striking in this comment was not only the mean-spiritedness,
but also the ignorance. Tom certainly knew the reality of Baghdad’s
dangers, firsthand. He talked frankly about them over that last August
supper. Tom was calm but clear about it: kidnaping, torture, murder
were daily fare on all sides there. How could he be so offhand about it?
I don’t know, except to say: that was Tom.
Illusions? Not in CPT. It was a CPT team, after all, that brought the
first reports about the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison to reporter Seymour
Hersh. They had also seen other humanitarian workers kidnaped and some
But there’s more to it than simply experience. The Christian Peacemaker
Teams take their identity seriously. Their namesake, after all, was
another unarmed troublemaker in an occupied country, who was tortured
and then suffered an ignominious public execution. One other phrase
that comes to mind is Matthew 10:24: “The disciple is not above
his master, nor the servant above his lord.”
But such quotations roll too easily off the tongue. When John Stephens
called about the kidnaping, I wanted Tom and his colleagues released,
safely, and NOW. But what, John and I asked each other, could we do to
help free them?
We kept coming back to this question in the next few days – and we were
not the only ones – as a deadline for the captives’ execution
approached. Experts in crisis situations advised informally that the
best approach was to raise the prisoners’ public profile, and seek as
much public outcry for their safety as possible. That would raise the
political cost for the kidnapers of harming or killing them. There were
no guarantees, we understood that. But it was an alternative to blind
panic or paralysis.
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? John is a talented and experienced webweaver, and such
is the accessibility of the internet that within two hours of our
conversation, www.freethecaptivesnow.org was up and running, with a
petition and links to public statements calling for the release of the
For the first several days of December, there was a growing
international chorus of such statements, even from very militant Muslim
groups, supporting the CPT workers and their release. Our online
petition, along with another, soon gathered more than 50,000 signatures
from around the world. There were many vigils and rallies. While we
were terrified for our friends, the swelling response made this an
But after December 8, when the second deadline for executing Tom and
the others passed, momentum shifted. The flurry of statements died
down; news reports dwindled and became routine; and from Baghdad there
was ominous silence about our friends, amid the noise and cries of
civil war. For John and me, at our website, frantic effort to beat a
deadline was replaced by keeping a vigil.
Every night of those thirteen weeks, either he or I would scan dozens
of wire service reports for news of Tom and the others, and post what
we found: with only a few exceptions, the news was “no news.” The
exceptions were when the gloomy videos of the four – and then, on March
7, 2006 the three, minus Tom – were released. On March 10 came the
dispatch we dreaded most: confirmation of Tom’s murder. The only relief
from this loss appeared on March 23, when the other three captives were
Who killed Tom? And why? Few other than the ones who pulled the trigger
know the truth, and one wonders how much even they understand.
Speculation abounds, of course, with many of my more left-leaning
friends imagining a CIA-sponsored conspiracy to silence these noisy
pacifist dissenters. Yet from the reading and interviews I have done,
however, the most likely guess seems much more mundanely sordid: it was
all about money.
The videos showing Tom and the others were issued by a previously
unknown group, “the Swords of Righteousness Brigades.” This name is
very likely a fake, a cover for a criminal gang, which simply kidnaped
them for ransom. There is, as John and I learned while keeping our
vigil, a sizeable kidnaping industry in Iraq. Many Iraqis have been
thus abducted for profit, as well as citizens of numerous other
James Loney felt the ransom was wanted to help finance the guerilla
insurgency. Many other observers feel that while the kidnapers are
Muslims, and many have likely suffered from the invasion and
occupation, these crimes appear to be only loosely connected to
religious or political grievances. Rather, they are more a specimen of
organized crime in a devastated and lawless society.
From this “profit-seeking” perspective, taking CPT team members was not
a particularly good “investment”: the group has pledged not to pay, and
not to ask anyone else to. Moreover, none of the four had a personal
fortune to plunder. But the gang likely figured that regardless of such
brave declarations, given enough pressure, someone would eventually
cave in and pay. (Harmeet Sooden later told a New Zealand press
conference that he suspected a ransom had been paid for him and the
other survivors, despite vehement government denials.)
But if the kidnapers were after money, why kill Tom? There are a number of hypotheses:
One, to show the friends and supporters of the other three that the
kidnapers meant business. Some other hostage killings – for instance,
that of longtime relief worker Margaret Hassan, an Iraqi citizen
originally from Ireland – were evidently staged to show recalcitrant
governments that ransom demands were life and death matters.
Or two: because Tom was an American, and as a veteran had a US military
ID card, he was a certified “enemy,” and one for whom the US government
would not pay. That made him worthless and disposable.
Or three: if the kidnapers couldn’t get ransom from Tom’s family or
government, maybe they recouped something by selling Tom to another
Iraqi insurgent gang, one willing to pay for the privilege of shooting
a military-identified American. (It is all-too easy to imagine their
derision at his protests that he was a musician, not a fighter.)
Again, no one knows, but these are plausible explanations for the inexplicable.
Ten months after their rescue, in November 2006, Iraqi authorities
announced they had arrested several persons who were alleged to have
been involved in the CPT kidnapping. As soon as this news reached the
three survivors, they made public statements extending forgiveness to
their captors, and declaring they would refuse to testify against them.
In May of 2007, James Loney expanded on this position. He said he had
learned about the criminal courts in Iraq, and that their procedures
were arbitrary, secretive, and with no real trace of fairness to their
trials. Based on this information, Loney said “I cannot participate in
a judicial process where the prospects of a fair trial are negligible,
and more crucially, where the death penalty is a possibility. . . .
Take away the fancy legal rationale and the dignified court proceedings
and what remains is an act of murder, plain and simple, no different
than what was done to Tom Fox. Capital punishment is a manifestation of
the very violence it claims to deter.” (Note: despite extensive
searching, I have not been able to find information on the outcome of
the charges against the alleged kidnappers; this is, unfortunately, no
With Tom’s death and the freeing of Jim Loney, Norman Kember and
Harmeet Sooden, our www.freethecaptivesnow.org website morphed into a
memorial and an archive, and we wound up our nightly vigil. I felt more
than a little guilty about moving on, as the daily discipline of
focusing on Iraq’s ongoing agony had brought home in cruel detail how
many thousands more men and women there were being kidnaped, held,
tortured, and some killed, by factions from all sides, amid a bloody
confusion of agendas.
With Tom gone, and the other CPTers free, I was abandoning these
legions, to return to some semblance of everyday routine. In truth, I
can only hang my head and cite the Qur’an , Surra 4:110: “And whoever
does evil or wrongs himself but afterwards seeks Allah’s forgiveness,
he will find Allah Oft-forgiving, Most merciful.”
Yet Tom’s story does not stop there. In the founding saga from which
his CPT team took its marching orders, death was a tragedy, but not the
end of the drama. Further, Tom was a Quaker, and in this tradition “be
patterns, be examples,” and “let your life preach” are among our oldest
and most venerable mandates. Tom expanded on the implications of this
work in a sermon to a Mennonite congregation between trips to the
Middle East: “We did a lot of listening in Iraq with CPT, and the
stories we heard were not always easy to hear.”
“Walk cheerfully” is another Quaker motto. Tom was naturally
cheerful. But even he had to struggle to maintain this outlook in Iraq.
On August 30, 2005 he was struck by a quote from Elizabeth Blackwell:
“I must have something in life which will fill this vacuum and prevent
this sad wearing away of the heart.”
“This was the quote today in my planner,” Tom wrote, “as I considered
the tragedies both great and small, personal and global we are all
dealing with. . . . The only ‘something in my life’ I can hold onto is
to do what little I can to bring about the creation of the Peaceable
Realm of God. It is my sense that such a realm will always have natural
disasters. It is the ‘man-made’ disasters that we are called upon to
bring to an end.”
Tom sought to hold on to hope wherever he was. This was a difficult
task in the regions where he chose to work. Of one rare encouraging
incident, in Palestine, he recalled, “Here was a seed that can take
root. Here were people working through their anger and coming out the
other side committed to peace. Here were people listening to their
hearts and listening to each other. Here a tiny part of the Peaceable
Realm was created. Here was the justice of God taking shape.”
Can that also happen here?
NOTE: The following excerpts and reflections are adapted from a memorial book, Tom Fox Was My Friends. Yours, Too. It was published in late 2006. It had been recently reissued, and is available online via Createspace.com, at: