'Human rights' -- what is the choice?

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"Human rights," like "world peace," is a sentiment to which nobody takes exception. The phrase seems meant to be carved in marble on the base of statues or above the pillars on government buildings.

To pronounce the words "human rights" in public is to guarantee oneself an automatic round of applause.

Yet when the moment of rhetoric has passed and men of affairs are getting down to business, there often appears to be a tacit understanding that "human rights" (like "world peace") must not make one soft -- must not prevent one from doing what is deemed practical and necessary.

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Or as the Reagan State Department transition team put it: Where "human rights concerns conflict with other vital US interests," one should not allow them "to paralyze or unduly delay decisions."

Another team, made up of 71 American clerics, has composed an open letter to President-elect Reagan, offering nearly opposite advice. The violation of "human rights" must not be condoned "as the price of a favorable climate for US investment," this letter insists.

The clerics (including 12 bishops) emphasize that they are not asking the President "to impose US standards on other nations." They are talking only of the most elementary "human rights" -- the right not to be a victim of "murder," "torture," "atrocities," "barbarism."

The open letter cites the "brtual slaying" of American nuns in El Salvador and the imprisonment of 1,200 South Korean dissidents, with death penalties over their heads.

At the moment, "human rights" are hardly an abstraction.

Yet something in us persists in treating "human rights" as an "issue" rather than an actuality. Can anybody pretend that "human rights" occupy the public imagination as vividly as the murder of John Lennon or the trial of a school headmistress charged with shooting the "Scarsdale diet" doctor?

Armies of reporters have flocked to Scarsdale, some with book contracts in their briefcases, to dramatize still another "American Tragedy." Huge crowds bearing flowers and singing Beatles tunes have congregated all over the world in spontaneous memorial services for Lennon.

These are the stories we dwell on.

At a vigil outside the Dakota a teen-ager honoring Lennon declared movingly: "I believe you have to do something." Radio and television stations revised their programming. Newspapers pushed other events (including those in El Salvador) off the front page to make room for Lennon retrospectives.

People altered their lives to bear witness.

Will people -- teen-agers or adults, in New York City or elsewhere -- ever feel they have to alter their lives, "do something," because of obscure victims in remote little countries most of us could not locate on a map?

These are the stories we want to hurry past.

"Human rights" have a way of coming in third on our list of political priorities, behind guns and butter, especially these latter days when the operative word is survival and we seem resigned to a kind of Proposition 13 of the heart. How can we feed the millions of strangers the United Nations tells us are hungry, to say nothing of rescuing the thousands of strangers Amnesty International tells us are deprived of their "human rights"? TWe can barely save Chrysler.

The Good Samaritan, we all agree, makes a perfectly splendid parable. But if he keeps crossing the street to help total strangers, how will he get his job done? In fact, how will he attend to the needs of his own family and friends?

Realistic, logical questions. But "human rights" are a funny business. If we cannot be concerned about "human rights" abroad, we are less likely to be concerned about "human rights" at home. The clerics in their opn letter go on to deplore "ugly and resurgent racism" on the domestic scene.

And finally, "at home" may mean just that. The Samaritan who closes his heart to the stranger may end up closing his heart also to the members of his most immeditate family, becoming cool to the "human rights" of his young children or his elderly parents or his spouse.

"Human rights" -- the term is never rhetorical when it comes into your own life.

We may not be able to afford "human rights." Nothing is less cost-efficient. We are unlikely to earn even thanks. But we can afford to become the kind of people who cannot afford "human rights"?

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