Terrorism is the antithesis of respect for human rights. To stop terrorism, it may be necessary to adjust some of our understanding about rights, at least for a time. We may need, for example, to reconcile ourselves to national identification cards or more cameras in shopping malls, just as we have done with closer inspections at the airports. Human rights advocates have an obligation to work with government, not just criticize it, to find the right balance between security and liberty.
But at the same time, government needs to recognize that the protection of fundamental human rights—the right to due process, the right not to be tortured, the rights to food and housing—are pathways to a safer world, a key element in the struggle to defeat terrorism. You don’t stop terrorism by sitting on your bayonet; you stop it by using that bayonet wisely, fairly, and sparingly. That is a lesson the United States seems not yet to have learned.
Uncle Shumi escaped the Nazis, but just barely, and when he visited his hometown with a relative after the war, a group of Gentile children taunted him: “The dead Jews have come back!” But Shumi stood his ground and returned to the village regularly, reaching out to the children and telling them stories. Eventually the whole village looked forward to his visits. When he died, the six children who had taunted him said the Jewish prayer for the dead, Kaddish, at his grave.
Human rights emerge out of the common misery of humankind and give voice to the simplest needs of the human spirit. They teach that bodies perish but that evil does too. They help us to recognize evil and combat it, but also to be temperate in triumph. “Conduct your triumph,’ said Lao Tzu, “as a funeral.”
If human rights have anything to teach us about combating terrorism, it is this: that we should guard well that which we cherish, but remember that a generous heart is what makes what we cherish worth guarding.
William F. Schulz ’71, an expert on civil rights and human rights records worldwide, has served as executive director of Amnesty International USA since 1994.
He has traveled extensively on investigative missions, including a 1997 mission to Liberia to investigate atrocities committed during that country’s civil war. Two years later, he flew to Northern Ireland, urging human-rights protections be incorporated into the peace process. This past September, he traveled to another crucible of violent social change, Darfur, in Southern Sudan, where Amnesty delegates spent considerable time in the refugee camps listening to horror stories from victims of the genocide.
An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, Schulz served as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations for eight years. Throughout his 27-year career, he has spoken out in opposition to the death penalty; supported women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and racial justice; organized demonstrations; and written extensively on behalf of all four causes, including the 2003 book: Tainted Legacy: 9/11 and the Ruin of Human Rights.
On his return visit to campus in September, Schulz was presented with the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award. Presenter and fellow classmate Wendell Russell ’71 praised Schulz’s career as “representing the best of Oberlin’s values of internationalism, social justice, and the advancement of human rights.”
Schulz lives in New York with his wife, the Rev. Beth Graham. He has two grown children.
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