Freedom Without Borders


We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe."

Tough talk in a world in which "interfering in the internal affairs of another nation" is a cardinal sin. But for those of us who care about human liberty, who believe individuals are more important than states, author Elie Wiesel's words on receipt of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize constitute an important reminder. National borders are artificial constructs, products of politics and wars. We can't ignore them—but neither should we let them hide those they hold captive.

None of this is to suggest that the U.S. government should invade the Soviet Union or send in the Marines to liberate Nelson Mandela. But it does mean that human rights do not begin and end at home. If we as individuals are concerned about liberty in our own country, it follows naturally that we will care about the freedom of those who don't inhabit the same corner of the globe. And we will not only care, we will act.

For starters, we will complain—loud and long—about attacks on individual liberty. This outcry may focus on specific people; given short attention spans, especially in the media, this is often an effective tactic. When the Soviet Union released its most famous dissidents last year—Natan (Anatoly) Shcharansky to Israel, and Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner to Moscow from internal exile in Gorky—it did so because international opprobrium had made the cost of holding them prisoner greater than the benefit of letting them go.

Focusing on individuals personalizes oppression, makes for good symbolism, and may lead to freedom for those individuals. But emphasizing celebrities presents dangers of its own.

First of all, it may delude us into thinking that the release of a few visible individuals signifies great changes. As Shcharansky noted in a Wall Street Journal article, "If an observer in New York or Washington may be deceived by the modern sophistication of the current dictator, those of us who suffered or continue to suffer in the Soviet Union cannot be misled.…At the very time I was being released, such a [Hebrew] teacher, Alexey Magarik, was arrested on trumped-up charges of drug possession. Another Hebrew teacher, Yuli Edelstein, became an invalid in the camp and is doomed to remain so for the rest of his life." The celebrities may be released, but the conditions that made them prisoners persist.

(This is why famous prisoners of conscience tend to anoint their successors. Sakharov, for example, has emphasized the plight of Serafim Yevsyukov and his son Serafim, Jr. The father was first sent to a Moscow mental institution for requesting an exit visa; he is now imprisoned in a clinic where doctors try to change his views by injecting him with drugs. The son has been sent to a labor camp north of the Arctic Circle for refusing to serve in the army.)

By focusing on celebrities, we also run the risk of ignoring oppression that takes no prisoners. The more general state terror found in Ethiopia or Guatemala doesn't fit neatly into a schema of police versus prisoners. Nor does outright genocide of the Nazi or Khmer Rouge variety. Whose release do you ask for when everyone is dead? Yet state terror hurts individuals, anonymous though they may be.

All of this brings us to perhaps the most fundamental freedom, and one of the most often denied—the right to vote with your feet, to pick up and get the hell out. The passport and visa, rare until a century ago, have become terrible instruments of state power. The best known example is, of course, the Soviet Union's refusal to grant exit visas to people like Serafim Yevsyukov who have become disenchanted with the socialist paradise.

The right to emigrate is, however, the flip side of the right to immigrate—and that one the U.S. government is only too eager to deny. Even as we cheered the Statue of Liberty last year, Congress slapped more locks on the golden door.

Contrary to fashionable opinion, the government doesn't simply discriminate against people fleeing right-wing regimes. It takes a more general closed-door stance. The freedom-loving folks at the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted asylum to only seven of the 216 Guatemalans who asked for it last year. But they also denied almost 3,000 Nicaraguans the same status, accepting fewer than 1,300 as refugees. Even people from Afghanistan find themselves behind bars in America. Our borders, too, have become prison walls for the oppressed.

If he were making a movie "about the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, cartoonist Art Spiegelman says he'd show the mice drowning off the coast of Cuba while U.S. officials refuse to let them in—not cheerfully singing à la Steven Spielberg's An American Tail. Our immigration policy has changed little since the government turned away thousands of Jews in the '30s and '40s, sending them to their deaths in Europe. The names have been changed, but mice are still drowning. The struggle for human rights does begin at home, after all.