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Human rights and the evil of terrorism

Terrorists commit vicious human rights crimes. But they also thrive on the crimes of others.
By William F. Schulz
January/February 2004 1.1.04

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If there is one thing I know something about, it is evil. I know about it in theory, and I know about it from direct experience. I know about it in theoretical terms because I studied theology, a field in which evil is one of the two or three Big Topics. And I know about it directly from my work with Amnesty International, in which I am exposed to evil virtually every day of my life. I see its consequences in the disfigured face of a 10-year-old girl, scarred for life when the much older man to whom she had been married off by her family threw acid into her eyes to punish her for some minor disobedience. I meet it masquerading as civility when I shake the hand of the government minister who I know has ordered the torture and execution of hundreds.

Nothing can excuse atrocities such as these. No appeal to cultural differences can excuse the husband. No pursuit of a political agenda can explain away the actions of the minister. Evil is real, and it is very important to call it by its name. When President Bush labeled those who terrorized Americans on September 11, 2001, “evildoers,” he was absolutely right, and his instinct to avenge their deaths was, too. Human rights are designed to make the world a safer place and to help stop people from doing evil things. Terrorists may sincerely think that what they are doing is good, but advocates of human rights have no problem agreeing with the president: Terrorist acts are evil, and terrorists must be punished.

To understand the evil that is terrorism, we need to understand many things: the psychology of hatred, the dynamics of group pressure, the appeal of religious extremism, the dangers of economic inequity, the pull of ethnic pride. These and many other factors have been debated endlessly since 9/11. But one thing has been largely neglected: the relationship between human rights violations and the birth and perpetuation of terrorism.

Terrorists come, of course, in many shapes and sizes. Terrorism has deep roots and diverse causes. But one thing its various manifestations almost always have in common is that they have been fueled by violations of human rights. For example, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the notorious left–wing guerrillas known as FARC, have managed to replenish their ranks, when they weren’t engaging in forced conscription, by appearing to champion the economic interests of the impoverished against unyielding landowners and their allies in government. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, while at first alienating many Kurds in Turkey with its radical rhetoric and violent tactics, gradually earned widespread respect by standing up for the Kurdish minority’s rights to political and cultural expression. And Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were formed in response to the Sinhalese majority’s persecution of the Tamil minority, including refusing them the right to vote, to receive a public education, or to use their own language.

Terrorists commit vicious human rights crimes. But they also thrive on the crimes of others. Eliminating human rights violations would not stop all terrorism, of course. Terrorism must be combated on many different levels—by law enforcement, military action, intelligence, financial controls, new technologies, airport security. But far from being an impediment to a terror–free world, as they have so often been portrayed in the past two years, human rights are in truth a benefactor of it.

Granted, human rights take longer to work their magic than a missile does. But depriving people of their rights feeds terrorism, and any global strategy that overlooks, much less denigrates, their importance is ultimately bound to fail. Abiding by human rights standards is not sufficient to diminish the threat of terrorism, but it certainly is a necessary condition for achieving that goal.

From the rhetoric U.S. leaders have tendered since 9/11, they sometimes seem to get that. On the first anniversary of that terrible day, President George W. Bush gave eloquent testimony that “America will . . . take the side of brave men and women who advocate human rights and democratic values. . . . The United States will promote moderation, tolerance, and the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity—the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, and equal justice.” But something has gotten lost in the translation.

And part of the reason is that our leaders have been content to condemn terrorism as evil and leave it at that. To take this tack is comforting. Evil is no longer floating around somewhere out there in the ether (nor, conveniently, is it located inside our own hearts or manifest in our own acts); it is tethered to a select group of very real people committing very real deeds, and all that is required of us is to destroy those people and we will have gone far toward destroying the phenomenon of Evil as well. The only problem with such a strategy is that we risk in the process destroying our own hearts.

For if something is considered overwhelmingly, irredeemably, incomprehensibly evil, the very embodiment of the satanic, then may we not be justified in using virtually any means to eradicate it? That is certainly how Osama bin Laden and his ilk feel about us. But one reason to conduct ourselves in accordance with the rule of law and respect for the fundamental human rights of even the most despicable among us is in order to complement the anger and anguish we quite understandably experience when we are hurt by evildoers with the wisdom and civility that characterizes the kind of world in which we want some day to live.

Human rights apply to even the worst of us: even the terrorist, the terrorist sympathizer, and certainly to the thousands of people who may be suspected of being terrorists but are not. It is easy to get confused about that, but if we do, our society will end up corrupt and tarnished, and evil will be all that much harder to stop.

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