Peace as a Duty: The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)

Peace ProgressSometimes humankind’s dedication to waging hatred and war runs so deep that even the meek and pure of heart who attempt to circumvent such events become the object of derision and potential acts of violence. Perhaps no group of people in America knows this better than the Quakers, a religious sect that traces its origins back to the mid-1600s as a breakaway Christian alternative to the Church of England. Springing out of the violence of the English Civil Wars, the “Religious Society of Friends” became known for its use of the word “thou,” commitment to plain dress, refusal to swear oaths to political entities, opposition to slavery and alcohol, and the practicing of emotional purity with a direct personal relationship to God. Perhaps the one ideal for which they are best known stems from their refusal to participate in the waging of wars, which has also at times put them at great odds with mainstream culture. In particular, this commitment to pacifism placed the religion contrary to American societal trends in 1917, at a time when the United States ended its isolationism and entered World War I.

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AFSC Was Born In The Midst of World War I
Photo credit: Dunechaser / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Their opposition to violence in all its forms leads most Quakers to the refusal of military duty, even when called to that obligation through conscription, perhaps better known as “the draft.” Such was the case in 1917 when the United States joined the war against Germany and its allies, forcing the Quakers to provide conscientious objectors a constructive substitute for military service. In the midst of this predicament grew a uniquely American component of the religion, by which Quakers were able to “serve both humanity and country while being faithful to their commitment to nonviolence.” Now known as the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), this organization began by reaching out and helping conscientious objectors during the First World War, but also through its efforts to establish the means by which military duty could be carried out in other ways than on the battlefield. Throughout World War I, many draft boards across the country assigned conscientious objectors to the AFSC, which in turn directed the center of its efforts to wartime relief – such as the collection of food, clothing, and other life-sustaining supplies for disbursement in France and other areas greatly impacted by the fighting. AFSC workers were able to build a maternity hospital, care for refugee children that had been displaced in the waging of war, repair and reconstruct homes destroyed during the conflict, and distribute the supplies necessary for sustaining the everyday needs of life. At the end of the war, AFSC programs spread into many areas of Europe, including Poland, Serbia, and Russia.

During the 1930s and the years of  World War II the AFSC grew even more active, as worldwide humanitarian needs became more and more necessary during those tumultuous years. With Adolf Hitler growing increasingly more powerful in Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust spreading across Europe, AFSC was instrumental in helping all types of refugees escape the advance of Nazi oppression. Similarly, relief for children suffering on both sides of the Spanish Civil War was also a focal point of AFSC efforts just prior to the eruption of World War II – and when the war did eventually occur, AFSC took the unpopular role of aiding Japanese-Americans during their confinement in wartime U. S. concentration camps. Upon the end of hostilities in 1945, AFSC proved equally invaluable for the reconstruction of war-torn Europe, India, China, and Japan. Post-war efforts of the Quaker relief efforts did not go unnoticed, as evident in the fact that AFSC and the British Friends Service Council jointly received the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize. The following year of 1948 witnessed the AFSC aiding refugees fleeing the violence rampant in the Gaza Strip during the First Arab-Israeli War.

Following World War II, AFSC continued to provide charitable aid to impacted civilians on both sides of conflicts, such as the Korean War, Hungarian Revolution , and the Algerian War – but it also began to focus its efforts on programs designed for alleviating the tensions that tend to cause war, including the disparity between the rich and poor, injustices inflicted on ethnic minorities, and shortcomings in education, housing, and working conditions. The universal objectivity of Quaker peace efforts became very evident during the Vietnam War, when the “AFSC undertook programs of child care and prosthetics for war-injured Vietnamese civilians in the south and provided medical supplies for civilians in the north.” Unable to acquire U. S. State Department approval for delivery of the medical supplies to North Vietnam, AFSC eventually dispatched the aid with the help of Canada. In recent years, AFSC has been a open critic of the Iraq War, sponsoring a “Wage Peace Campaign” that called for ending the conflict and rebuilding the war-ravaged country “justly.” Ongoing AFSC programs today include efforts to prevent the militarization of American youth, fairer patterns in international trade, terminating the buildup of weapons and the international arms trade, banning the use of land mines, debt relief in poorer countries, a just two-country peace in Palestine-Israel, and reforming the U. S. criminal justice system.

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Originally AFSC Was Intended To Provide An Alternative To Military Duty
Photo credit: familymwr / Foter / CC BY

Objective writers on the subject of AFSC programs have astutely recognized that “AFSC’s peace witness is not just a negative peace (the absence of war or armed conflict), but a positive peace built on the presence of justice and human reconciliation.” Such an approach to world peace is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to proactively confronting transnational violence, also known as terrorism. Although military action might help in the short term to weed out radical cells dedicated to violence, it is the deep-seated, comprehensive labors dedicated to long term peace promotion that will prove the most helpful when it comes to ending the causes of that scourge in human history. The recognition of that fact runs hand in hand with the need to be aware of those that have died innocently in terroristic acts. You can help advance that fact by signing the petition to which this website is dedicated. Your effort would take just a couple of minutes of your time and no financial commitment at all. Join us and click on the link below.

You can help promote the establishment of a monument dedicated to all American victims of terrorism, whether they died at home or abroad, by clicking the link above and signing the petition. Nothing is asked but your signature for a good cause.

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Pillars of Steel: The 7 July Memorial

LondonThere is perhaps no other post-911 terroristic event that better exemplifies the dangers of homegrown radical violence than the events of 7/7 – the cold-heartedly planned series of explosions that claimed 52 lives in London, UK on July 7, 2005. Like the 2004 bombings in Madrid, Spain, the carefully orchestrated atrocity occurred during the early morning rush hour, as those affected were making their way to work by means of mass transit. Coming just one day after the city had been awarded the 2012 Summer Olympics, 3 bombs exploded on sub-surface underground train cars – and a fourth detonated on the top deck of a city double-decker bus later that morning. As is usually the case with terroristic violence, the victims died arbitrarily – and came from diverse backgrounds, ranging in ages from 20 to 60. Unsuspecting and innocent, they included native-born citizens of the UK, a married couple of 14 years, foreign exchange students, foreign-born British nationals, an aspiring actress and writer, and a Vietnamese-born computer worker who died one week later. A noted city of multiculturalism, the London citizens and visitors who perished that day were very representative of that fact – making the underlying hatred in the explosions even more vicious and senseless. Random and lethal, that is the face of transnational radical killing when it strikes.

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The Stainless Steel Pillars of the 7/7 Memorial
Photo credit: [Jim] / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Each of the four explosions of 7/7 were detonated through acts of suicide, and in each case the terrorists utilized homemade bombs that had been constructed in a London area apartment, utilizing a highly volatile organic peroxide–based mixture. Not only were the bombs homemade, but three of the terrorists were “homegrown” citizens of the UK – whereas the fourth was a British resident and Jamaican convert to Islamic extremism. As also demonstrated with the Boston Marathon bombing, the explosive devices were taken to the location of detonation in a backpack by young men who had previously led rather ordinary lives – although each of them was callously motivated by religious ideology. Although there is no evidence directly linking the events of 7/7 to al-Qaeda, each of the four perpetrators was drawn strongly to the violent beliefs of that organization – even to the point of being expelled from school for distributing promotional leaflets. In another similarity with the bombing of the Boston Marathon, 2 of the terrorists had just completed a trip to Pakistan in the year prior to the attacks. Subsequent investigation revealed that all four of the suicide bombers seemed to have been self-radicalized and dedicated to a violent interpretation of Islamic faith that was carried out in a deadly fashion.

Videos of the perpetrators appeared later on the Arabic television channel Al-Jazeera, espousing religious fervor as the motive for the suicidal havoc they leveled on unsuspecting and innocent citizens of London that day. The oldest and suspected leader of the group addressed the camera, stating that “words have no impact upon you, therefore I’m going to talk to you in a language that you understand.” His message also made reference to years of atrocities that have been committed against the Muslim world by Western democracies such as Great Britain, necessitating “ethical stances” on their part.   “We are at war,” he concluded, “and I am a soldier. Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.” There was no doubt in his words that he intended to die as a martyr, fervently beseeching “Allah almighty to accept the work from me and my brothers and enter us into gardens of paradise.” During the video, he invoked the names of prominent al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden.

Located in the southeast corner of Hyde Park, the memorial recognizing the 52 victims of 7/7 was officially dedicated by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall on the fourth anniversary of the tragedy in 2009, at a ceremony attended by key political figures and surviving family members.  Consisting of 52 stainless steel pillars rising straight up from the ground, the monument was designed under the close advisement of the bereaved families. Organized into four interconnecting clusters that represent the four locations of the incident, visitors to the site can walk through the pillars and read a variety of inscriptions related to the bombing – and a stainless steel plaque lists the names of those who perished is located close by.  Although cast from long-lasting, stainless steel, the memorial has recently received attention for the removal of a rust-colored film that developed on the rougher surfaces of some pillars. Nevertheless, the memorial is well taken care of like all the monuments of the Royal Parks in the UK, and it was the site of a ceremony marking the eighth anniversary of the bombings on July 7, 2013.

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The Memorial Plaque
Photo credit: Feggy Art / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Over the years since the bombing of the USS Cole, experts have carefully examined the role of “self-radicalization” evident in the continued prevalence of violent Islamic extremism – involving young Muslims that are “so enamored with al-Qaeda’s poisonous narrative that they are determined to commit spectacular violence in the name of Allah.” Although one might suspect emotional and mental problems, experts such as Brian Michael Jenkins mention that there is no cut and dried psychological profile for Islamist extremism. In fact, the conclusion has been that each such terrorist has been “remarkably ordinary.” However, the same research has uncovered a common thread in the motivation of self-radicalized terrorists, characterized by a desire to inflict glorified damage on an enemy as part of a religious war. Nevertheless, religious fervor is not the real heart of their inspiration, but rather a desire to vent anger and inflict “collective revenge” as part of an epic battle. Jenkins points out that “for a lot of these young men, the ideology has become a conveyor of individual discontent. Terrorism has become a solution to an unsatisfactory life.” This presents all the more need to promote religious and cultural tolerance as a means of lessening the allure of terrorism to some young men. It is also a call to sign the petition to which this website is dedicated. Join us by clicking the link below.

You can help promote the establishment of a monument dedicated to all American victims of terrorism, whether they died at home or abroad, by clicking the link above and signing the petition. Nothing is asked but your signature for a good cause.

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