Last week, USA celebrated its Independence Day. Last week Edward Snowden spent another day not knowing if he would continue being free. Last week Julian Assange spent another day holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Last week more prisoners in Gitmo were force-fed to break their hunger strike. The world’s champion of Liberty and Democracy, last week, seemed even more tarnished than ever.
In 1865, the people of France decided to gift the people of the United States of America with a statue to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the American War of Independence in 1876. Obviously, when the people of two countries are involved, so are their governments. It is little surprise, therefore, that a project that involved the French funding the statue and the Americans funding the base went over budget and got delayed by a decade. When it was finally installed it became the symbol for Liberty. The iconic statue that holds the torch of liberty in one hand, and the American Declaration of Independence in the other, and a broken chain at her feet, symbolized hope, freedom and liberty from persecution.
Poet Emma Lazarus wrote a sonnet called The New Colossus in which she described what the statue meant in one of the most poignant lines with respect to freedom and a safe harbour: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It became the hope for safe harbour for almost a century, a promise of safety, a place to escape from oppressive governments and systems.
For all those who grew up in the last century, United States of America remained the place where the persecuted could claim asylum. The most powerful nation on earth also had that wee bit of compassion, often taking up cudgels for what it termed ‘prisoners of conscience’. It gave refuge to religious minorities, political activists, actors, ballet dancers, whistleblowers, scientists, the dispossessed, the persecuted and more. People went to the US to escape from tyranny.
The other way was rarer. There were young men who sought refuge in Canada to escape military conscription to fight in Vietnam — but the government and the military heeded the protests and dispensed with conscription. This is not to say that the US government was kinder, more compassionate than others. It is more to say that the people of America took their freedoms seriously and fought to ensure that the government did not impinge on their rights.
The turning point in the intense love affair between the Americans and Freedom came with 9/11. The events of that day devastated their sense of security and well being to such a level that the emotional and psychological devastation wrought by the terror attack has made the citizens of the US immune to the human rights abuses that are being perpetuated in their name.
The first was the giant prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, popularly called Gitmo.
Thousands suspected of being terrorists were picked up and are held without trial. There are reports of human rights violations, torture and the sort of behaviour that one expects from a South American military dictatorship — not the nation that claims it is the champion of liberty and democracy. While President Obama promised to shut not just Gitmo but also the remaining worldwide secret network of prison camps, and signed a directive to that end, nothing has come of it.
Recently, human rights activists and Muslim leaders appealed to the President not to force-feed prisoners, who have been on hunger strike, during the holy month of Ramzan. A nation which prided itself on religious and political tolerance is today, possibly, the greatest human rights violator. The excuse given is simple: national security trumps human rights. That the war against terror is greater than the right to life or liberty. That the state has the right to take pre- emptive action against terror suspects, and label those who question it as not acting in national interest.
If Gitmo does not tell you how much the US has moved away from its core ideals, then look at the way that the US, led by President Obama, has persecuted Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. The way it used its tremendous clout to deny refuge for these people. Again in the name of national security. But, who is the nation? What is national security? Do you and I as individuals have the right to know if our personal security is being breached by the government? If every individual in a country has their personal security breached, is the nation still secure? And, how do you deal with whistleblowers who tell you that your government has let you down.
President Obama recently visited South Africa where he took his children to visit the prison at Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. He declared that Mandela was his hero. He had earlier also said that Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King were his idols. These were men who braved intolerant systems for greater good.
Risked their life and freedom for others. It is ironic that the man who won the Nobel Prize for Peace almost as soon as he took office is taking a stand that deprives people not just of their right to privacy, but also hounds those whistleblowers who reveal the government’s breach of not just the social contract with its own people but also the government’s own breach of the law. Obama’s record on human rights and snooping on his own citizens (not to mention citizens of other nations) is making Bush Jr seem like an upholder of human rights. Maybe it is time he visits the Statue of Liberty and reads the sonnet to The New Colossus.
By Harini Calamur, Head at digital content, Zee Media Group. @calamur.