Something about the way Leo Echegaray looks on television and in his newspaper photos makes it very difficult to summon sympathy for him as a man about to be executed. He wears a faint smirk on his face. It may be the sneer of contempt of a prisoner for a public that he stubbornly believes misjudged him, or the haughtiness of a criminal who thinks that not even death can destroy him. But it may also be the nervous half-smile of a man trying to put up a bold front, while he actually feels like peeing in his pants.
Whatever it is, one searches in vain for any trace of residual goodness in this death convict’s eyes or face, on which one might anchor a sentiment to spare his life. It bothers me that the contingencies of a convicted rapist’s face might actually block him from any access to mercy, and provide one more justification for a form of punishment that Amnesty International considers a violation of human rights.
I know a lot of good people who are intellectually convinced that the death penalty is a violation of human rights. Yet even they cannot bring themselves to defend Leo Echegaray’s right to live. In their hearts, Echegaray is probably not human. They cannot forget that he repeatedly raped a young helpless minor, his own daughter, whom he also used as a courier for illegal drugs. They are convinced that the world would be a safer place for women and children if people like him were banished from the human race. That human rights are for people who can respect other people’s human rights. And that it would be better if those who want Echegaray to live spent their energies defending the human rights of rape victims.
It is a persuasive argument. But the only way good people can continue to believe that human rights are intrinsic to every human being while denying them to people like Echegaray is by convincing themselves that the latter are really not human, or are less than human, or have lost their humanity and cannot possibly regain it.
As the philosopher Richard Rorty noted, even somebody like the venerable Thomas Jefferson “was able to both own slaves and to think it self-evident that all men were endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. This was because he had convinced himself that the consciousness of blacks, like that of animals, ‘participates more of sensation than of reflection’….Jefferson did not think of himself as violating human rights.”
Jefferson’s way of thinking was the same one that made it just for the American colonizers to annex the Philippines at the turn of the century, and to install themselves as masters, even as their constitution had declared that “all men are created equal.” In their eyes, Filipinos were only one notch higher than monkeys in the evolutionary chain.
All over the world, entire nations or tribes feel no remorse about killing their neighbors on the ground that they are not human. In Bosnia, in former Yugoslavia, Serbs call their Muslim neighbors dogs or devils, and, in supreme acts of ritual degradation, they cut off the penises of the men they capture and rape the women. During the May riots in Indonesia, soldiers entered the homes of Chinese families like packs of wolves and raped all the women they saw, each time uttering a cry to Allah. To them, the Christian Chinese women they raped were not human beings.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz was right: “Men’s most importunate claims to humanity are cast in the accents of group pride.” The ethnocentric perspective of our communities shapes our definition of human entitlement. The rights we take for granted as human tend to be suspended when we deal with others we do not consider part of our group.
The movement for human rights therefore must be a campaign to broaden the scope of what we regard as human, a campaign to make us think of people different from us as entitled to the same rights we presume for ourselves. It is a campaign to make people like the Serbian Christian militia, the Islamic soldiers of Indonesia, and Leo Echegaray see all women and children, regardless of their race, religion or status in life, as fellow human beings. But, more than this, it should be a crusade to convince all intelligent and decent people that despite what they did, the Serbian and Indonesian soldiers and, yes, Leo Echegaray, remain part of the human race.
It is far from being a hopeless crusade; it is rather, as my friend and director, Marilou Diaz-Abaya, puts it, a “crusade-in-progress.” From Paris, where she has been invited as lone Filipino delegate to an international gathering of Nobel laureates, human rights activists and cultural workers, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Marilou writes effusively of what she witnessed, that clinches the point I am making.
“At the Senat, Palais de Luxembourg, white-haired male senators and parliamentarians, descendants of French colonial masters, formally honored a Quiche Indian woman in Mayan tribal dress, a freedomfighter born in Guatemala, Nobel Peace Prize awardee (1992) Rigoberta Menchu. In quiet measured cadence, she addressed the black-suited men extemporaneously, in Spanish, receiving the tribute in behalf of all conquered indigenous peoples. She spoke about the past millennia, when her ancestors forged the course of human civilization, and the next millennium, when her generation would reclaim their pride and place of honor among all nations. At this gathering, the poetic irony in world history clearly found an image in the person of Rigoberta Menchu, living proof that the human being is not only redeemable, but also worthy of redemption.”
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