The Defense of Human Rights Demands a “Full Stop”

After the massacre in Paris, I found it difficult to return to my quiet, peaceful, everyday existence. However many miles lay between me and the victims, whatever the odds saying my family and I were safe from ever suffering a similar fate — for me, it was a turning point. If not my life in particular at least my way of life felt immediately under threat.

How could I, a school teacher and mother of four, begin to grapple with, to understand, to do anything about such a world-scale horror?

I read countless books and articles, listened to hours of podcasts, and watched scores of YouTube debates and discussions by prominent journalists and intellectuals addressing the Danish cartoon controversy, the Charlie Hebdo slaughter, and Paris. A few voices began to rise above the din: Douglas Murray, Maajid Nawaz, Aayan Hirsi Ali. I learned a great deal.

One of the most important lessons, one of the refrains in common among them, was a principle I believe is simple to grasp yet foundational to human rights — a principle I have termed for myself the “full stop.” Let me explain.

When British Muslim activist Asghar Bukhari was asked, the day after twelve people were mowed down in their offices in Paris, whether he condemned the killing, his response was, “I would argue that these cartoonists should never have been killed. Of course they shouldn’t…” Here, there should have been a full stop. But instead, Bukhari went on to say “…but they’re still racists.”

A week later, Muslim cartoonist Khalid Albaih was asked on Al Jazeera whether he supported the work of Charlie Hebdo. His reply: “I condemn the attack that happened, and I condemn the extremists for this horrific attack…” I held my breath, hoping that he would grant the victims the deserved full stop. But he went on. “… At the same time, I am not a fan of this publication. I think it was quite racist actually.”

My 14-year-old daughter, already the shrewd social critic, overheard this discussion, and asked, “Mom, how is that different from saying, ‘I condemn the massacre at the Bataclan…but I don’t like the music of Eagles of Death Metal?’”

It isn’t. When the topic is the murder of innocent people, it is absolutely irrelevant — coldly, perversely irrelevant — to express your views about their lives, their work, their values. The murder of innocent people is evil. Full stop.

It is for this reason that comments made by Trump at a rally in Michigan on Monday night sent chills down my spine.

He boasted of the “nice things” said about him by Vladimir Putin. He breezily mocked the suggestion that he might be offended by the praise. And then, addressing the charge that Putin was responsible for the deaths of countless dissident journalists, he offered the reassurance that he himself “would never kill [journalists]…” This statement, of all things — from the Republican favorite, from a potential Commander-in-Chief of the United States — deserves a full stop. But he went on. “…But I do hate ’em. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people. It’s true.”

True…maybe. Perversely irrelevant…without a doubt.

When innocent human life is threatened, the only response we can accept from our leaders, our friends, and ourselves is a full stop.