“How dare you criticize Bahrain when our own government tortures people!”
A big middle-aged man was offended that Code Pink activists had just challenged Bahraini diplomats on May 21 about human rights abuses at the Bahrain Embassy in Washington, D.C. He had just finished shouting: “It is rude to criticize others for human rights abuses when we torture people. Ever heard of Guantánamo Bay?”
Having been the first to challenge the Bahraini diplomats on their government’s appalling human rights policies, I swiftly responded, “You are right. We do engage in torture. Guantánamo must be shut down.” This caught him off balance and he momentarily quieted.
Co-founder of Code Pink, Medea Benjamin, who had let myself and Tighe Barry speak until then, stood up and challenged the man in front of about 70 people and said “just because our own country does bad things is not a good excuse for failing to speak up about abuses elsewhere.”
The middle-aged man, like many others at the diplomatic reception, was stunned. After a delicious meal of samosas and falafel and fresh fruit, along with a presentation extolling the wonders of Bahrain, Americans were standing up asking questions about unsavory matters. Attendees, most of whom had never been to Bahrain, had to contrast the multicultural, tolerant and beautiful aspects of the diplomats’ presentation with people asking about torture, imprisonment, corruption and dictatorship.
We had listened to their presentation without interruption, and then asked questions during their Q&A time. I started by asking a number of questions including: “Why did the Bahraini regime recently jail six people for tweeting?” “Why is the Bahraini regime branded as one of the five worst enemies of the Internet by Reporters Without Borders?” “Why would anyone want to invest in an unstable country where the regime refuses to find a power-sharing agreement with its opponents, many of whom are in jail?”
The Deputy Chief of Mission, Khalid Yousif Al-Jalahma, responded by saying that no country is perfect and that Bahrain is making progress. He also said that the reports that the prime minister was taking a share of new businesses were exaggerated. I imagined that he might be fired or worse were his equivocal response about corruption shared with his bosses in Bahrain.
Then Tighe Barry stood up and forcefully asked: “Why are nonviolent human rights defenders imprisoned in Bahraini jails like Nabeel Rajab?” “Why is the Bahrain regime continuing to torture people?”
Before Al-Jalahma could answer, the middle-aged American man again shouted, “Who are you to speak up about abuses? I served in Afghanistan and carried a gun.” After a short awkward silence, Medea and Tighe both responded by saying that they had been to Bahrain and witnessed abuses.
Finally came the coup de grace from the guest, “you would never speak up to Congress or our own government like this!” My mouth dropped. I was sitting there thinking, “you have no idea who you are talking to.”
Forty hours later, with his words still ringing in my ears, I saw Medea Benjamin challenging President Obama and the government of the United States about his drone and Guantánamo policies.
Medea was disappointed with our Bahrain event. The batteries had run out on the camera just as we began asking our questions. She emailed, “Sorry it was not a better action.” I wrote back and told her that I was content with the protest and asked what there was to be displeased with apart from the problems with the tape. Medea replied that, “a lot of the point is getting it on tape so folks in Bahrain can feel supported.”
The middle-aged man, however, did speak an important truth. To speak out about injustices requires a commitment to address one’s own community and society first.
None of us can speak truth to power everywhere and on every topic. Most of us have privilege and come with baggage. But Medea and Code Pink serve as a model for global citizens everywhere as they strive to act with universal consistency for human rights, the rule of law, an end to militarism, and speak truth to power wherever one can.
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I am that middle aged man. I stand by my question. As far as I can tell, Bahrain is a small, vulnerable country that is just across the Persian Gulf from Iran and feels deeply insecure about it. So they do their best to make alliances with larger powers which have a great deal of influence on what their internal domestic policies are. I was there on business, looking to meet a commercial or trade attache for some help on aluminum supply for motorcycle parts we manufacture. I freely admit, I was a little flustered and shocked that night. I don’t like being bushwhacked. In the real world, I’ve had to shoot my way out of a couple of things and I don’t always respond as gracefully as I’d like to ugly surprises. I’ll try to do better next time.
I find that I often agree with Ms. Benjamin for a lot of issues, most recently, Syria. I joined her demonstration. But I am also deeply skeptical about self appointed NGO’s that pretend to speak for me. I do know the NGO and non profit world and remember how many of them were front organizations set up by Gust Avrakatos and the CIA in Peshawar. They claimed to be there to help Afghans but their employees spat at any one who carried a rifle – other than Bin Laden. That purer than pure attitude rubs the wrong way when you’ve just extracted yourself from being detained and disappeared by the Pakistani Army, jacked up by your own embassy or buried a comrade in the field. All those things come back hard sir.
Mrs. Clinton wants to go to war for “human rights”. Somebody else’s. If you’ve ever been in the DC jail or in a fight with a prosecutor in this city, you would know that there are plenty of human rights violations right here and God knows how many people are locked up in the prison industrial complex unjustly. The Bahraini presentation that you chose to break up had already freely acknowledged that they have a human rights problem and that they are working on it. As far as I am aware, you make no distinction between the Mujahedin of the 1980’s and the Taliban. So I find your vision a little fuzzy and, if I’m not mistaken, and I’m sure you’ll correct me, I have the standing to say so.
There isn’t enough time or space to go into detail about the betrayal of Massoud, why it happened or who is responsible but, over time, I have learned that the trail leads to some of the same culprits you have highlighted for other awful things. Almost every single foreign rights violator goes by US supplied manuals and has US advisors which is not where your aim was that night. The core problem is American foreign policy, it’s stewards, mercenaries and revolving door spies and diplomats. I’m sorry but I feel that demonstrating against Bahrainis, trying to catch up with the 21st century from what, the 12th, is far off the mark and serves no useful purpose.
As a guest at the dinner, I wanted to make sure that my hosts understood that you do not speak for me. Indeed, sometimes you do. But if Code Pink intends to be a dragon slayer, please attack the head and not the tail. The world simply doesn’t need any more tail gunners.
“Middle Aged Man”