3 Questions for ...
Director of the Human Rights Program
What is the role of a human rights
program in the context of a liberal arts education?
"The best thing a
program like ours can do is to help students raise critical
questions about truly important issues. Our role is to help them
develop critical thinking and analysis skills that are applicable in
any context. We put the facts in front of them about certain human
rights situations—whether philosophical or real-life, practical
issues—and then ask them to think through the conflict of rights. I
ask them to identify the victims and perpetrators, what kind of
justice is appropriate and, ultimately, what is right? How do we
define what is right?
"During that process
a variety of disciplines come into play. For example, we talk about
physician complicity in human rights violations in places like Iraq
and Turkey, but we also talk about the same types of concerns at
Guantanamo Bay. Students get to think about issues in different
ways, all of which are tangible to them because these are real-life
scenarios—unfortunately. A different example is the overall
discussion of security and liberty that is taking place in this
country right now. Our students have to consider that issue in a lot
of different contexts. It helps them to develop a much more
sophisticated sense of analysis and, I think, a more accurate view
of the world.
"At the same time,
most of our classes include a community learning initiative. One of
the projects that my class is working on right now involves giving
presentations to students at the Learning Corridor on a variety of
human rights issues. Some of these issues are very complicated—for
example, the role of multinational corporations in promoting human
rights—and their job is to make that information accessible to
seventh graders. That’s not easy to do.
"So, at the very
least, I hope that our program helps our students engage global
issues, connect with them at a local level, and think through the
complexities. This exercise helps them develop critical, analytic
thinking skills. We question everything, even the very basic
premises of human rights."
Americans be aware of relative to human rights and the war on
security does not have to be at the cost of minimizing our freedoms
or violating human rights. Torture and ill-treatment are illegal,
immoral, and impractical no matter who exercises it and the
circumstances. We give up our soul—what makes this country a
sanctuary for those seeking freedom—when we violate human rights.
"In the fall
semester, I invited a member of the judge advocate general’s office,
whom I had taught at Oxford University last summer, to campus to
give a talk on the issues of human rights violations by members of
the U.S. armed forces in Iraq. His position is that when we give
away even a scintilla of our rights we are giving a victory to the
terrorists. He believes that nothing justifies torture, and we need
to accept that certain acts of terror may happen, others will be
prevented, and to go about our lives. There’s a place in the middle
somewhere, an appropriate balance, where we can have security—we all
want security—and we can live with maximum liberties.
"This is a very
young country. People fought on this soil to secure these liberties,
and it is almost an act of treason to give them away so easily. It’s
very important that we find the right balance. For example, there
needs to be much better clarity about the wiretapping situation.
What are its limitations and criteria? Does everyone who immigrated
to the U.S. from Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iran have a wiretap on their
phone whenever they call their grandparents?
"We need to work
toward having less of a culture of fear. One of the things that
worries me is the way we’ve turned inward in the last few years. We
should create a much more open society where people are not afraid
to say what they believe, while at the same time targeting the
specific networks where the terrorists are active. I’ve heard people
say, ‘I have nothing to hide, so the government can look in my house
and tap my phone,’ but that’s how big brother cultures are formed.
It is part of our culture to question authority—we should all be
questioning our government all the time—it’s what a democracy is all
about. Governments should be accountable to their constituents.
Somehow, popular thinking has made that appear ‘unpatriotic.’ It’s
very important for us to say that there are limitations, that there
are courts of law, and that we want—no, we demand—that everything be
done above board. We should be thinking about what the costs are
when we give up liberties in the interest of security."
Who were some of
your childhood heroes?
"My father was the
biggest hero in my life. He was kind, non-judgmental, and fun.
"I can remember two
heroes from when I was a kid—Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer.
I had read a little bit about them, but I really didn’t know that
much about them. I am sure that I must have been influenced by my
father who was a scientist and a humanist. I know I liked the fact
that Schweitzer was a humanitarian and that he was out helping
people. I remember that I had an Einstein poster on the wall. As I
said, I didn’t know too much about them, but I thought they were
"My favorite author
for the longest time was Dickens. When I was 12 or 13, I had read
almost all of his books. I was very excited by them. I grew up in
Iran and I went to an Iranian-American school. In college, Camus
became (and still is) my hero. When I feel a sense of desperation at
the state of the world, I think that those of us in the human rights
struggle are all like Sisyphus and that we just keep pushing the
boulder up the hill until there are more of us—and then the load
will be less heavy. As an activist, I work hard at keeping pessimism
and hopelessness out of my life."
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What they’re reading …
What they’re reading…
Vernon K. Krieble Professor of Chemistry
Merisi da Caravaggio was arguably one of the greatest painters
in history. He is certainly recognized as the master of the
Italian Baroque. Of his many works, only 60 to 80 are recognized
today. Hence, when a new Caravaggio is “found” it is a cause for
great celebration. Jonathan Harr’s book, The Lost Caravaggio:
The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece details the drama
behind such a search. The painting in question “The Taking of
Christ” was supposedly completed by Caravaggio in 1602 and Harr
follows the trail of present day graduate student, Francesca
Capelletti, and an art restorer in Ireland, Sergio Benedetti, as
they try to piece together the history of two paintings, one of
which might just be a lost Caravaggio. This book is a real-life
detective story with all the mystery, frustrations, joys,
ups-and-downs, and unexpected turns of a well-written work of
fiction. But the most compelling aspect of the book is that the
story is true!
"My interest in the
book stems from my interest in the scientific methods used to gain
information from and about both paintings. Of course, Caravaggio’s
life is woven throughout the text and that lends even greater
interest to the reader. The combination of past enjoining present
and history informing reality makes this book a must read. I was so
taken with it that I have since completed another, more
biographical, account of Caravaggio’s life by Francine Prose titled
Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I recommend both books. You
will not be able to put either down once you read the first page."
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