Logo

American Power and Human Rights

September 23, 2004

Tainted Legacy by William Schulz

This event was cosponsored by Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida.

Remarks

WILLIAM SCHULZ: Thanks to all of you, and a special thanks to President Eastman and Professor Felice and the Carnegie Council for arranging my presence here. I'm especially pleased to have learned over dinner of the global commitment that this college has. That's still relatively rare, and it is certainly something to be commended.

I heard the other day a little story of three kittens who were walking along with their mother one day when a large and vicious dog came up. Naturally, the kittens were frightened. The mother cat just arched her back and hissed at the dog, "Bow-wow, bow-wow," and the dog turned and ran away. The kittens looked up admiringly at their mother and the mother down at them, and she said, "You see, my darlings, that's the advantage of knowing a second language. "

But how many Americans, either literally or metaphorically, know a second language—how many are aware of the importance of the world beyond our shores? Eckerd College is cultivating that knowledge, and for that I highly commend the president and all the rest of you. What I want to do tonight is to tell you first just a brief word about Amnesty International and then talk about this most recent book.

I don't know how many of you read the New Yorker, but if you do you'll be familiar with the little fillers that sometimes appear at the bottom of the columns. One of my favorites was this one: "Important notice: If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our book Sky Diving Made Easy,please make the following correction. On page 8, line 7, the words 'state zip code' should have read 'pull ripcord.'"

Now, when I read this, naturally it forced me to conjure up an image of hundreds of people falling through the air desperately shouting their zip codes. But it also reminds us that the right words at the right time really can be a matter of life and death.

That is the principle upon which Amnesty International has relied since it was founded in London in 1961, when a British barrister read of two college students in Portugal, which was then under the military dictatorship of a man named Salazar, who had been tossed into prison for no greater crime than having gone out one night to their local pub, raised their glasses of beer, and toasted to freedom.

The lawyer thought to himself, "I wonder whether it would do any good if I and some of the rest of us here in the United Kingdom were to write to the Portuguese government and ask for the release of these students. "

He editorialized to that effect in a London newspaper, and much to his astonishment, tens of thousands of people wrote to the Portuguese government. The Portuguese government, which had been accustomed to doing anything it wanted to its own citizens, was dumbfounded to be receiving all of this international attention about what they regarded as no more than vermin, and they let the students go. That was the germ of the idea that sometimes, merely by bearing witness to the truth, we here in St. Petersburg, Florida, can affect what is happening to people in Lagos, Nigeria.

Today, 1.7 million people around the world, like the students who are part of the chapter here at Eckerd College, bear witness to that truth in one form or another, be it about child labor or the sexual trafficking of women, prisoners of conscience, or indeed the largest humanitarian crisis today, that in Darfur, Sudan,from where I have literally just returned the day before yesterday.

Sudan, where 1.2 million people find themselves forced out of their villages by Janjaweed—so-called "militia"—men on horseback with rifles, who burn their villages. Their menfolk are slaughtered, and they are forced into refugee camps or internally displaced persons camps, all with the collaboration and support of the Sudanese government. An incipient genocide, if not a real one. That too is Amnesty's concern.

If you are interested in that topic, we can talk more about it during the question-and-answer session. But tonight, as you have heard, I want to talk about this book, Tainted Legacy.

I always take every opportunity to talk about my books in order that I not have to confide to my journal, like Henry David Thoreau did to his the night that his publisher returned to him 800 of the 1,000 published copies of A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers—that night Thoreau wrote in his diary, "I have a library of 900 books, 800 of which I wrote myself. " So do rush over to the table, and when I sign your book it will increase its value exponentially.

Now, I once read somewhere that the three most popular topics for books in the United States are sex, dogs, and Abraham Lincoln. Ever since then, I have been yearning to write a book about the sex life of Abraham Lincoln's dog, but the data on that topic is relatively scarce, and so I have settled for writing books about human rights. What I am trying to do in this latest one is to help us find the right balance between our right to security and our right to liberty.

When I was in high school, I became acquainted with a religious movement that called itself Moral Rearmament. I didn't know a lot about the movement, but I did know that a practitioner of Moral Rearmament was to follow four virtues, only four, but four virtues without compromise, four virtues practiced absolutely.

Those who would be Moral Rearmamentists were to be absolutely honest, absolutely pure, absolutely unselfish, and to display absolute love. Now, to a thirteen-year-old this sounded like an eminently sensible philosophy, and I decided that I would become a practitioner of Moral Rearmament, and for a day or two I was. For those days I tried never to lie to my parents or my teachers, I tried to vanquish every lustful thought from my head, I tried to be generous to a fault, to adopt an attitude of beatific love toward all of God's creatures.

But gradually it began to dawn on me that one or more of these virtues might occasionally be in conflict with one another. Absolute honesty, in particular, seemed perpetually at odds with the other virtues. An elderly relative of mine, for example, much loved, was notorious for her bad breath, and when she asked me to give her a big kiss on the lips, which of the virtues was I to follow, that of absolute honesty or absolute love?

So pretty soon the appeal of Moral Rearmament began to fade, and I persuaded myself that, noble as its ideals were, they were philosophically bankrupt and I would need to abandon them for the sake of intellectual consistency. At a relatively early age, therefore, I learned the hard truth that a set of injunctions, all of which are to be enforced in equal measure, are bound to get in each other's way.

If all ten of the Ten Commandments, for example, are to be practiced at all times with equal fervor, what am I to do if my mother or my father, whom one of the Commandments instructs me to honor, asks me to break another one of the Commandments, to steal or to kill? Now, this insight about the limits of absolutes is an important one for human rights because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is the bedrock articulation of all the rights that you and I may claim for having been born human beings, contains more than forty such rights. What happens then when one of those forty comes in conflict with another?

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration provides, for example, that every one of us has the right to "security of person". That is, that being safe from terrorism is not just a nice idea; it is our absolute right as human beings, every bit as important as any of the other rights. Indeed, some would argue it is the most important right, because if you are dead you can hardly exercise any of the others.

Now, the U.S. government contends that in order to defend the right to security it may well have to violate or modify some of the other rights, the so-called "liberty rights" in the Universal Declaration, like the right to a fair and open public hearing or the right to counsel.

What do we do then when one set of rights comes in conflict with another? Fortunately, the Universal Declaration provides us some guidance. It suggests that rights may occasionally be limited in order to secure the public order, to protect us against things like terrorism. This is the international equivalent of former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg'sfamous remark that, "For all its guarantees of freedom, the U. S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights does not constitute," he said, "a suicide pact. " And so the critical question becomes: how many limitations on our rights are necessary?

If we accept the government's position, the answer is many limitations. If we accept the opinion of many of us in the human rights community, the answer is very few limitations. The government, on the one hand, has not stopped to consider the full implications of compromising human rights, not least of all the implications for the success of its war on terror. We in the human rights community, on the other hand, have failed equally to provide an adequate strategy for fighting terrorism while still maintaining optimal respect for human rights.

A few days after 9/11, a young man, whose name is Cheikh Melainine ould Belal, the twenty-year-old son of a Mauritanian diplomat, was taken into custody by the FBI. Ould Belal spoke no English. The FBI provided him no translator. For more than a month he was shuttled between detention centers in Kentucky and Louisiana and Ohio, often without access to a lawyer or to his family.

Then, forty days after he was apprehended, ould Belal was released. He was not charged with anything having to do with terrorism, or with any crime whatsoever, except that he had overstayed his visa by two weeks, and so he was deported from the country. But before he left, ould Belal had one last thing to say: "I used to love the United States," he said. "Now I don't understand it. I used to want to learn to speak English. Now I don't want to ever hear English spoken again."

Cheikh Melainine is typical of about 1,200 foreign nationals who were taken into custody in the weeks immediately following 9/11. He is emblematic of another 5,000 to 8,000 foreign nationals, virtually all of them Muslim, who have been forced to register, or are being held incommunicado as material witnesses, or who have been fingerprinted.

The question we must ask ourselves is: are we truly safer for having treated thousands of Muslim residents this way; or might it not be that alienating people who had previously looked upon this country with admiration and respect is a surefire way to make the world a more dangerous place?

When I was growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1960s, I was afraid of only two things, truly afraid:I was afraid of nuclear war and I was afraid of Tony Santaguido. I was afraid of nuclear war because my parents had assured me that should war come, Pittsburgh's steel mills would be the first thing that the Russians bombed. But when I learned in school that if I were to merely duck and cover under my wooden desk I would be safe from radiation, I immediately relegated nuclear war to a much less prominent place in my litany of worries. But that left Tony Santaguido, the neighborhood bully.

One time Tony caught me with a left hook to the jaw that persuaded me on the spot to become a minister. Now, the most obvious way to have dealt with Tony, I suppose, would have been to have bloodied his nose right back. If I had been one to do my fighting with anything other than words, I probably would have taken that approach. But I was not confident of my skills as a pugilist. And besides, I knew that Tony had a very large family, and I suspect that if by some miracle I did manage to prevail, his brothers or his cousins would have sought me out to exact their revenge and I would have been living in a world of perpetual fear that would have made the alternative of nuclear war seem welcome.

And so I settled on a different tack. I made sure in the first place to surround myself with as large a group of my friends as possible whenever I sensed that Tony might be on the prowl, and I decided to strike up an acquaintance with one or two of Tony's other gang members who weren't as ill-disposed toward me as he was. I wanted them to prevail upon him to leave me alone.

After a while, and somewhat to my surprise, these dual tactics began to work. Tony still glared at me when we crossed paths, but it was obvious that his fury had ebbed. I never knew exactly what had changed, but I figure now in retrospect it had something to do with the famous observation by Casey Stengel, the former New York Yankees and Mets manager, that the secret of being a great baseball manager is to keep the two guys who hate your guts away from the three guys who are so far undecided about the question.

I also figure that this little parable has a thing or two to teach us about fighting terrorism. On the face of it, the best course would have been to have beaten Tony senseless. Sometimes you just have to stand up to bullies. But, as Talleyrandobserved, you can do anything at all with a bayonet, except to sit on it.

If I had taken the martial course alone and stopped there, not bothering to nurture my alliances with my friends, not bothering to find ways to reach out to the more persuadable segment of Tony's retinue, or Tony's gang, the three guys who were undecided, I might have been in for a long, nasty battle.

I think the U.S. government has gotten the bayonet work, the military work, down reasonably well in the war on terror, but it keeps trying to sit on the bayonet tip.

The fact is that the war on terror will ultimately not be won on the battlefield; it will be won by encouraging allies around the world to stand with us in the struggle and making it as easy as possible for moderates in the Arab and Muslim communities to reject the terrorist way, because, contrary to ill-informed right-wing opinion in this country, the vast majority of Muslims around the world did not applaud when the planes hit their targets on 9/11.

The vast majority of Muslims are keenly acquainted with disappointment and poverty and corruption. One in five Arabs lives on less than $2.00 a day. Arab unemployment hovers around 60 percent for young males, and responsibility for the lack of Arab development lies squarely on the backs of Arab governments.

Indeed, it is the lack of good governance, it is the absence of democracy, the denial of human rights, and the lowly status of women in particular, with its attendant waste of human resources, that account for the backwardness of the society. Unemployment, economic stagnation, and widespread looting of the public treasury by your officials—this would be difficult enough for any population, any group of citizens, even if they did have access to mechanisms through which to regularly replace regimes or voice dissent.

You know, we in this country often make fun of our politicians, sometimes with good reason. When I lived in Massachusetts, I knew a state senator who got on statewide radio one night and proclaimed in loud and fervent tones, "The Republican octopus is spreading its testicles across the entire commonwealth."

We make fun of our politicians, but we rarely stop to think that it is democracy that allows us to live with various kinds of foolishness. But of the fifty-seven member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, only two of them, Bangladesh and Turkey, have managed to sustain democracy over an extended period of time.

In the absence of nonviolent democratic ways through which people can express their frustration, where do they turn for political change? It is hardly surprising that sometimes they look with sympathy upon political and religious extremists, who offer that most rare of commodities, an alternative vision.

And so the best way to persuade those guys who are undecided about terrorism, about extremist tactics—that is, those millions and millions of people in the Arab and Muslim community who are not terrorists but who are frustrated with their lives—the best way to persuade them to reject the terrorist option is for the United States to be a champion of democracy throughout the Arab and Muslim world, while at the same time being a model of respect for human rights ourselves.

But every time we cozy up to the Saudi royal family, every time we overlook Egyptian President Mubarak's repressive ways, every time we allow the Chinese to get away with persecuting Uighur Muslimsin the name of fighting terrorism, and every time we undermine the United Nations in the name of transplanting democracy to other countries around the world, we put the lie to President Bush's often eloquently stated contention that the war on terror is being fought in defense of the rule of law.

And similarly, every time we violate rights here at home, we make it much harder for moderate Muslims, to say nothing of our European allies, to stand with us. As for those 1,200 foreign nationals, like Cheikh Melainine ould Belal, taken into custody after 9/11, the Justice Department's own Inspector General decided a year and a half later that the Justice Department had violated those people's human rights. And this pattern has been repeated over and over again over the last three years.

The government forces thousands of foreign nationals to report for fingerprinting and registration, and then a few months later it discontinues the practice, admitting that it has little, if any, utility in identifying would-be terrorists. The government incarcerates more than 600 foreign nationals at Guantanamo Bay, claiming that they are unlawful combatants and, hence, exempt from the Geneva Conventions. Because they are imprisoned in Cuba, they are outside the reach of U.S. courts.

Human rights groups argue that the Conventions require a competent tribunal, not the captors themselves, to determine the status of the prisoners. To ignore that is to invite the wrath of the Red Cross and the international community. We suggest that the Cuba sovereignty issue is a red herring, for can you imagine what would happen if Fidel Castro actually tried to exert his sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay? And the Red Cross has broken with its tradition of public silence and denounced the incommunicado detentions.

Guantanamo has become a principal focus of international wrath against the United States. The Supreme Court has shredded the Administration's arguments against U.S. judicial jurisdiction and requires some type of hearing for the prisoners.

In one case after another the United States' human rights violations are being called to account. For example, two incarcerated U.S. citizens could be denied legal counsel, said the government. This decision was found preposterous by the Supreme Court. Just yesterday, one of the two was released after three years' incarceration, incommunicado, without access to lawyers.

And of course, ultimately there is the case of the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraiband elsewhere, torture that was revealed by Amnesty International in May 2003, almost a year before the telling pictures of it were published, torture that was denied to me personally by the highest officials in our government, denials that have been found to be rubbish.

The fact that we in the human rights community have been proven right is hardly cause for celebration. No, indeed, because all of these human rights violations confirm the wisdom of Lao Tzu'sgood counsel, that "one should conduct one's triumph as if it were a funeral. " For what the undermining of human rights has done has been to lead to a far more dangerous world. By handing al-Qaeda solid evidence of U.S. hypocrisy, we have made it far harder to defend the proposition that the war on terror—a legitimate war that every single one of us wants to see successful—is not a war on Islam but a war in defense of the rule of law. If this country had set out to do anything it could to fill the ranks of al-Qaeda with new recruits, it could not have done a better job than it has.

But why has all this happened? In part, it is because of some elements within our own history that have displayed a magnificent ambivalence about human rights. Inspired by the Pilgrims' quest for religious freedom, we Americans have long seen ourselves as champions of human rights. But Puritan society itself contained at its heart contradictions that have roiled American history in one form or another for 350 years.

The Puritans did not come to this country to establish a commonwealth of tolerance. Oh, no, no. They came to this country to create a society in which their one and only truth, God's truth, could rule forever. This is the origin of the famous statement by John Winthrop, that: "Ours was to be a city set on a hill, the eyes of all people to be upon it, that then shall say of succeeding plantations 'the Lord shall make it be like New England.'"

This was to be a dictatorship. The United States that was founded early on was to be a dictatorship, but not a dictatorship of a tyrant nor of a king. It would be a dictatorship of a group of people, the holy and regenerate, those who could prove before the church that they possessed the signs of grace. For it was only the sanctified and the elect would could participate in this community, and those people deemed insufficiently holy—sometimes they were called the cohabitants—those people had no voice and no vote. There is a set of minutes from an early New England town meeting which puts it nicely: "Voted three things," it says. " Voted first, that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. Voted second, that the earth is given to the saints. Voted third, we are the saints. "

Now, in few periods of American history was that tension between the elect and the unregenerate more obvious than during the revolutionary era and the era of slavery. And then, as the United States' global power grew, so did the number of people affected by that understanding, that only the regenerate truly deserve rights. As the United States became an imperial power in the late-nineteenth century, the issue of who was among the sanctified and virtuous, and hence eligible for full recognition of their rights, became more complicated. How would we see our role in relationship to what William Howard Taft,then-Governor of the Philippines, called "our little brown brothers?"

Congregational minister Josiah Strong put it this way in an 1885 best-selling book, called Our Country: Its Possible Future and Present Crisis. He said, "We Americans are the chosen people. God was not only preparing in our Anglo-Saxon civilization the dye with which to stamp the people of the earth, but also massing behind that dye the mighty power with which to press it."

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And so, to our day and our generation, we find a novice President confronted with the enormity of 9/11, seizing the moment to crusade against evildoers everywhere in the name of freedom, in the name of human rights. But this was no city set on a hill, the eyes of all people to be upon it. No. This was a chosen people preparing the dye with which to stamp the people of the earth, or at least of Iraq, and massing behind that dye the mighty powers with which to press it.

How profound a paradox, though. A conservative President whose base political philosophy, like that of all true conservatives, is to be suspicious of excessive government because they know how easily human beings can be corrupted by power, and yet who is presiding over a government that threatens to extend its reach into every corner of the globe and every quiet alcove of American domestic life.

Now, having said all this, I need to say immediately that terrorism is the antithesis of respect for human rights. Human rights advocates like myself have an obligation not just to stubbornly resist every effort of the government to protect the people—no. We have an obligation to work with the government, not just always to criticize it, to find the right balance between security and liberty.

And at the same time the government needs to recognize that the protection of fundamental human rights is a pathway to a safer world, a key element in the struggle to defeat terrorism itself. Because you don't stop terrorism by sitting on your bayonet; you stop it by using your bayonet—that is, your power—wisely and sparingly.

Uncle Shumi escaped the Nazis during World War II, but just barely. When after the war he returned to his hometown in Poland, a group of Gentile children taunted him: "The dead Jews have come back, " they laughed and pointed. "Look, the dead Jews have come back. "

But Uncle Shumi just stood his ground. He stood his ground and he returned to the village regularly. Every time he did, he reached out to those children, he patted their heads, he stroked their cheeks, and he began to tell them stories. Eventually, the whole village looked forward to his visits. When he died, the six Gentile children who had taunted him said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, at his grave.

You see, human rights emerged out of the common misery of humankind. They give a voice to the simplest needs of the human spirit. Human rights teach that human bodies perish too soon, but it teaches us that evil perishes too. They teach us to recognize evil and to combat it.

But they teach us one thing more. They teach us what Lao Tzu said, that we should conduct our triumph as if it were a funeral. I think if human rights has anything to teach us about fighting terrorism, it is this: that we Americans should guard well everything that we cherish. But that we must remember that it is our generous hearts that makes what we cherish worth guarding in the first place.

What the world most admires about America is not our military might, not our economic power; it is the vision this nation seeks to embody of a society that respects immigrants, that protects minorities, and that guarantees due process even to the most heinous and evil one among us. Betray that vision and we betray the most powerful resource America has. Betray that vision and no one will say Kaddish over our graves; they will dance upon them. I think that America is better than that, and I know that our future and our safety depend upon our remembering it.

Thank you very much. Please feel free to ask questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION:I am very concerned about the language that is used in the so-called war on terror—the war on terror, the war on terrorism, and the war on terrorists. I am also concerned that the absence of knowledge of historical context really cripples people from making the kinds of personal judgments you are talking about, American people particularly, combined with the absence of any kind of relationship with world opinion.

I'm a lawyer, I am certainly not claiming to be a communications scholar, but these kinds of things are glaring to me. I wonder if you would like to make some comments on that.

WILLIAM SCHULZ: I think your point is very well taken, that we have very little sense of the larger world around us, of its opinions, and most especially of our interdependence with it. The fact that the United States, powerful as it is, is simply not able to effectuate our ends—be they strategic, economic, environmental, health concerns—without the cooperation of the rest of the world, that is a recognition that I think may finally even be dawning upon some of the more recalcitrant of our leaders. At least I hope so, because it is such a fundamental fact about the world in which we live today. Disease alone crosses boundaries every single day, and certainly that is true of terrorism.

QUESTION :I wrote a letter to my Senator years ago about the human rights crisis in Sudan and he replied, "America is working as hard as it can to restore order and human rights back to the Sudan." And then, years later, I'm hearing the same story and see the same things going on and on. I want to know what today can we do to make it better and to alleviate these problems.

WILLIAM SCHULZ:Thank you. That of course wouldn't be the first time that a member of Congress wrote such a letter to a constituent. You know, there was a Senator from Ohio many years ago, named Steve Young, who whenever he got a letter he didn't like, replied to his constituent, "I thought you'd like to know that [name of the constituent] John Smith wrote me an absurd letter and signed your name to it."

In any case, the fact is that the Sudan has been very low on the American radar screen for the twenty-one years that it has been at war, even though 2 million people who have died in the course of that war. We can actually thank in large measure our friends in the evangelical community for having put the Sudan on our current President's agenda, and for the extent to which the United States, through current UN Ambassador Danforth, was very instrumental in resolving the longstanding civil war between the north and the south.

But with the resolution—or at least the apparent resolution—of that conflict, now this new crisis has emerged in the western part of Sudan, in Darfur. To its credit, the United States has again taken the lead here through the United Nations.

But the great tragedy is that, because of our misuse of the United Nations and our unilateralism in the context of the Iraq war, the rest of the world is hesitant to follow. The kind of moral leadership that we have been able at other times to exert has been compromised and our credibility when we make claims about genocide, for example, is under considerable doubt.

That's one reason why it is so important for international organizations, like Amnesty and many others which are moving into the Sudan, to be able to issue independent observations so that it is not seen as just an American predilection in this respect. Now, there are absolutely important things that we can do as a country, because while it is commendable that the United States has taken the lead in calling the world's attention to Darfur—and the UN Security Council resolution that was passed just last week is an important first step—yet the United States needs to do far more than apply labels and pass resolutions.

It needs to first involve itself with just as much fervor in the peace talks that are currently going on between the rebels in Darfur and the Sudanese government and their allies as it did in the north-south peace talks at Naivasha in Kenya.

Secondly, it needs to be prepared to equip the African Union troops. They are currently in small numbers in Sudan although the Sudanese government, pursuant to the UN resolution, has agreed to increase their numbers. Yet those troops have virtually no resources, no communications tools. The African Union commander with whom I visited in southern Darfur told me they had one helicopter.

Now, Darfur is the size of France, and so we have in the southern region one helicopter with which the African Union troops are supposed to keep the peace. That's not going to happen without a significant infusion of support from the international community, and that won't happen without the United States taking leadership—not just verbally, but in terms of actual materiel support for the African Union. Those are things which we can urge upon our leaders and we can say that we care to see this conflict resolved just as readily as we did the north-south conflict.

QUESTION: In your book you write about abuse of prisoners here in the United States. Is there a comparison between that and our treatment of prisoners in our prisons overseas?

WILLIAM SCHULZ: The way we treat international prisons, yes. I think that it is not surprising that what we learned at Abu Ghraib happened, because you're absolutely right, Amnesty has long documented abuse of prisoners in our domestic prisons here. Amnesty put out an extensive report on the sexual violation of female prisoners by prison guards.

We have repeatedly reported on the use of electroshock equipment against prisoners in U.S. prisoners, beatings and other forms of abuse, rising on occasion to torture, in our prisons. Without accountability, this kind of impunity is almost inevitable. I think exactly the same thing happened at the international level. Your analogy is correct.

QUESTION:I think in your speech you mentioned that we should have national identification cards?

WILLIAM SCHULZ: No, no, I didn't. I said that we may need to get used to some temporary derogation of certain rights, and I gave the example of a national identification card. Given all the information that the government already has just from our driver's license and social security numbers, I'm not sure that a national identification card, which is nothing like a tattoo, is going to be a significant infringement upon our rights.

But I'm not advocating that. I'm only saying that we have to be willing to discuss ways in which both of our rights, the right to liberty and the right to security, can be maintained.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less