Unfashionable Conscience

Human Rights

I've decided that I want to be like Lillian Hellman. Ten years from now, when I look back at these years of looming war and terrorism, of vague promises of future horrors if the U.S. cannot create safety by changing the world in its own image, I want to be proud of what I did and said. To quote Lillian Hellman's letter to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee of May 19, 1952, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions."

For the first time in my life, as a resident alien in the U.S., I find myself thinking carefully before speaking my mind about politics and current events. I resent it. Some days, I'm worried about attracting the attention of INS and the new Homeland Security office. Other days, I'm not even that coherent: I'm simply outright terrified. The rest of the time, I worry that, by my silence, I become a silent collaborator who, by not speaking out, tacitly condones the U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home.

I refuse to be a frightened, silent collaborator.

So, let me be perfectly clear: I do not believe, under any circumstances, that the government, military personnel, or individual citizens of any country in the world, including the U.S., has the right to make decisions for the citizens of another sovereign nation about the government of that nation.

What does that mean? It means that I don't condone the civil and human rights violations that regularly take place in Iraq, Israel, Chechnya or any other country. It means I can and should speak out against the actions of the Bush government, or the Palestinian Authority, or the Israeli government, or anyone else who calls for the violent overthrow or murder of the leader of another country, no matter how well-meaning or left-wing they may be. It means I cannot sit silently while homicide bombers blow up men, women, and children in Israel or Chechnya, or Israeli soldiers and settlers to kill men, women, and children in the Palestinian Authority.

No-one should sit back and do nothing about the fear, violence, intimidation, and restriction of basic human rights that so many governments in the world inflict upon its citizens. However, sending in the troops to depose the existing leader should not be an automatic option. When should the troops go in? The troops should only go in when all else has failed, when there's an alternative government that has the support of the citizens of that country, and when the citizens of that country make it known that they need help from other countries to place their alternative government in power.

We also need to work for long-term change in those countries - the kind of change that comes from within. How do we get there? We could start by making sure that everyone in the world has access to free education, basic health care, sufficient nourishing food and potable water. No strings attached.

That really shouldn't be a radical notion, but it is. Very little aid is offered to "developing" countries without a neat set of strings to tie up the donations and the aid workers. Gifts-in-kind of food and other commodities from Western corporations are typically gifts of those products that the country or corporation manufactures, instead of those products that the recipients can provide for themselves. Sending wheat, maize, and other western grains to African nations doesn't help in the long-run if the land can only cheaply and easily produce rice. This type of short-term relief gives the corporations the image of being socially responsible while creating a new market for the products that the corporations produce.

The US government also promotes their own political agenda through funding for international aid organizations. Want to obtain federal money to provide health care to women in third world countries? Better not promote or even suggesting the possibility of an abortion, even if your organization uses its own, non-US government funds for that purpose.

The restrictions aren't limited to abortions and family planning. The international missions of the United States Agency for International Development require that countries work to specified economic and political reforms to obtain food and monetary aid. According to President Bush, "Along with significant new resources to fight world poverty, [the US government] will insist on the reforms necessary to make this a fight we can win."

Reforms. Doesn't that sound like a good idea? Seems to me that depends on how you define the reforms. According to President Bush, "Countries that live by these three broad standards -- ruling justly, investing in their people, and encouraging economic freedom -- will receive more aid from America." I guess it's just too bad for those people who live in countries whose governments don't meet his criteria. Whatever they are.

Then again, maybe Mr. Bush wants those countries to impose the same reforms that he's introduced in the U.S. over the past couple of years. In that case, the governments of some of those other countries can relax, because Mr. Bush and his government have, among other things:

Removed collective bargaining rights and from unionized workers in the Department of Homeland Security, and exempted them from existing collective bargaining agreements.

Relaxed EPA air pollution standards for oil refineries and manufacturing plants, potentially increasing the level of dangerous pollutants that we breathe.

Required non-immigrant workers, visitors and students born in the Middle East, who have already gone through background checks and received visas, to register with INS, then arrested them and held them in over-crowded cells, without beds, chairs, heat or sufficient food.
Arrested an undetermined number of US residents of Middle Eastern descent for "national security purposes" and held them without bail or the right to speak to an attorney.

I could go on and on. I've lost track of how many reforms this government has enacted in the past two years. Every time I sit down to write about one of them, another one, equally offensive, is released by President Bush and distracts me before I've managed to write coherently about my objections to the first.

I keep thinking, however, about the first reform that the U.S. sprang upon the world. The one that keeps me hopeful about this country, even as I worry about whether I'll wake up one day and discover that the Department of Homeland Security has decided that I'd be much better off if I was summarily picked up and deported back to the country from which I came. That reform goes something like this:

. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Elisabeth Hurst is a member of the Bad Subjects production team.

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