(EVEN IF YOU FEEL LIKE A CHICKEN) Speech to the Graduating Class of 2005
University of San Francisco
Upon receiving an Honorary Doctorate
May 20, 2005
Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Political Science
President Privett, Trustees, faculty and staff, parents and most especially graduates, thank you for the honor you have bestowed upon me today. It belongs as well to all human rights defenders, some of whom are in this audience, and especially to our colleague Maggi Popkins who tragically died this week and whose service to El Salvador and to justice will always be remembered. These people work tirelessly without recognition to make human rights central to our country and to our earth, but their lives, like my own, are immensely enriched by this work. Let me also salute San Francisco University and its wonderful president, Father Stephen Privett, for taking the lead in so many ways to reaffirm the importance of human rights.
In the midst of this day of celebration, I ask you to pause briefly -- for these are serious times.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, anti-apartheid hero and head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tells a story (which I shall embellish) about a farmer who raised chickens in his backyard. Amongst this farmer’s chickens, there was one that looked a little odd. It behaved like a chicken. It walked like a chicken. It pecked away like a chicken. One day a wise old woman came along and said to the farmer: “You know, that isn’t a chicken. It is an eagle.” The farmer said: “No. That is a chicken.” And he looked at the odd bird and said: “Don’t get any fancy ideas. You are a chicken.”
“I don’t think so,” said the wise woman. She picked up the strange looking chicken, climbed up the nearest mountain, stood at the edge of a precipice, and waited until sunrise. Then she turned the bird towards the sun and said: “You are an eagle. You can soar. You can be part of a larger world. Go fly.”
The strange looking chicken shook itself and tentatively spread its wings. It looked up at the sky. Then it looked down -- way down -- to the bottom of the precipice. It took a few steps back in the direction of the other chickens, where it had been so comfortable, where it had a daily routine and plenty of food to eat. “Sorry,” it said to the wise woman: “I don’t feel like an eagle. I feel like a chicken. I don’t think I can fly.”
“That’s your choice,” the wise woman said softly. “But remember, you are responsible for the decisions you make. If you don’t dare to fly, you will never be fully alive. You will never reach the sky. You will not soar with eagles, just walk with chickens. My advice to you: Even if you feel like a chicken, fly like an eagle.
That “strange chicken” comes to mind every time there is a choice between taking an easy path and making a trail where there is no road. A quarter century ago, a man I never met faced that choice. Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a conservative and bookish man, had remained relatively distant from the conflicts shaking his country. But as countless Salvadorans described how they had been tortured or seen their family members killed, and as his own priests were gunned down, his conscience compelled him to speak. Like thousands of defenders of human rights around the globe today, he became the “voice of the voiceless,” using his intelligence and his podium to document violence and to denounce it in weekly homilies broadcast throughout El Salvador.
Exactly twenty-five years ago, on March 24, 1980, while saying mass in a chapel on the quiet leafy grounds of a hospital, Archbishop Romero stood at the altar, faced his congregation, and, raised his arms to lift the chalice above his head. He formed a perfect target. Outside the chapel, from the back seat of a red car, he was shot through the heart by a professional sniper. His death robbed El Salvador of the one person who might have been able to negotiate a solution for avoiding the state terror and civil war that claimed at least 75,000 civilian lives, including those of six Jesuit priests that were dear colleagues of this university.
[Display poster]. This is a Homeland Security wanted poster, seeking Captain Alvaro Saravia for his involvement in the Archbishop’s slaying. It was issued after Captain Saravia was found liable for Monsignor Romero’s death in a trial held in Fresno, California this past year. Before he fled from the civil trial we conducted against him, Captain Saravia, the former Chief of Security of the founder of the governing party in El Salvador, had been living in Modesto, California, selling used cars.
In the trial we presented eyewitness testimony, including that of the chauffeur who drove the assassin to the chapel. We showed the court evidence about the activities of a death squad formed inside the military and specializing in the killing of priests and religious personnel. We showed the Court the hand-written notes of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, Captain Saravia’s boss, planning the assassination on Miami hotel stationary. We produced Captain Saravia’s diary with notations of payments for the Archbishop’s murder. We played an actual tape of Romero’s murder, accompanied by the hushed sobs of the Salvadorans who filled the courtroom.
In a landmark human rights decision on September 3, a federal judge ruled that the murder of Archbishop Romero constituted “a crime against humanity” because his death was part of a widespread and systematic attack intended to terrorize a civilian population. War crimes and crimes against humanity, developed in the Nuremberg Charter to try Nazi war criminals after World War II and exemplified today by the terrible killings in Sudan and the Congo, have a special place in the law; their commission shames and diminishes every member of humanity. As such, under international law these can be tried anywhere the perpetrators are found, even Fresno, California.
You might wonder: What is the point of bringing up all of this old history? Why would a scholar, who should be publishing in fine journals and polishing her cv, be working with her students and so many others to tell a truth that is still not possible to tell in El Salvador? And why, as my mother used to ask, would “a nice Jewish girl” concern herself so much “nastiness?” The reason is simple: After twenty-five years in which some of those behind this killing rose to the highest positions of power in El Salvador and not a single person has been held accountable, this case is but one rivulet in what we call a “justice cascade.” As part of a global effort to end impunity that began when a Chilean military dictator was arrested in London, Argentine torturers are being prosecuted in Spain, Rwandan genocidaires face their accusers in Belgium, and Salvadorans state terrorists must answer for their actions in the United States. Here in San Francisco the Center for Justice and Accountability has won cases against Bosnian and Honduran torturers, against the Chilean military leader of the Caravan of Death, and against a former member of the Haitian High Command. One rationale for these trials is to not permit the United States to become a safe haven for torturers or state terrorists. But their purpose is also larger. In the words that Archbishop Tutu wrote to the judge in Fresno, that “evil and oppression do not have the last word.” It is “to seek the truth and to restore the moral balance.”
Our task as human rights scholars is to tell difficult truths and to make the costs of war visible so that all of us have to measure the justness of war against the price of waging it. So here is one difficult truth: Whether we like to hear it or not, since the attacks of September 11, representatives of the United States, from Afghanistan to Guantanamo to Iraq, have been torturing prisoners. They have done this with the institutional approval of our government advised by memoranda from present Attorney General, with official declarations aimed at side-stepping the historic safeguards of the Geneva Conventions. They have produced actual written policies approving interrogation techniques that the United States has repeatedly condemned as barbarity and torture when practiced elsewhere by others. In the name of the citizens of the United States, in your name, officials of our government are shipping people to third countries knowing they will be tortured; they maintain ghost detainees held incommunicado in secret locations, contrary to the Bill of Rights and to international law. At least 108 people have died in U.S. custody, and at least 31 of these have been labeled homicides in subsequent investigations. At least five people have been tortured to death.
By the military’s own calculation, an estimated 80 percent of prisoners subjected to this treatment are innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever.
A wall of impunity surrounds the architects of policies responsible for this larger pattern of abuse. Instead, like so many foreign governments whose abuses I investigate, blame has been shifted downwards to low-ranking officials and “rogue elements.” How can we criticize governments around the world for human rights abuses if we have no real accountability for these same crimes at home? How can we openly defy laws against torture without inviting others to do the same – and to do it against our soldiers and against us? No amount of military power will make up for what we lose if the world at large believes that, despite our years of rhetorical support for rights and democracy, we are prepared to compromise them the moment our own lives become threatened.
Which brings me back to the precipice – and to you, the “strange birds” of the class of 2005.
Our country is at the edge of a precipice – one that has been defined so terribly during your college years -- from 9/11, which was an earthquake in the psyche of America, to the war in Iraq, to the terrible photos of the hooded and naked Iraqis led around on a leash. This is your precipice. And so I ask you: What will you do about it? What will you do to awaken in yourselves and others a new sense of responsibility for our country and for this world? What will you do to show that you are not only American citizens but also global citizens? How will you fight to make our leaders conduct themselves as if they were going to live on this earth forever and be held accountable for its condition?
Note that I am not asking you whether you will be chickens or eagles. You have no choice. You are living in the most powerful country in the world. You are graduating from a first rate university and you now hold a treasured certificate that does much to ensure your place among the most fortunate of this world. You are eagles. The choice you face is whether you will walk in small enclosures with chickens or use every bit of your talent to fly with eagles.
It is not easy to believe that your actions can affect our country and our troubles earth. For all of you who feel helpless, who despair, who are cynical, who constantly feel like chickens and not like eagles, remember this. “There are only two kinds of people who tell you that you cannot change the world: those who are afraid to try themselves, and more importantly, those who are afraid that you may succeed.”
Just think, if everyone in this room spent even an hour or two a week – an hour or two a week – as an activist in human rights or whatever issue most concerned you – and if you did this throughout your life – imagine the difference our collective efforts would make to our nation, our planet and our children.
So shake yourselves, class of 2005, spread your wings and lift off. Aim high for a world without war and without genocide, a world of respect for all and for our earth, a world in which some do not have far too much and others far too little, a world that is greater than the one we are handing to you. Because, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”