woody zimmermann 120John Wayne’s signature film character was a fierce, independent champion of justice and honor who was willing to kick butt, as the occasion required. To people who felt powerless in the rat-maze of modern life, the Duke’s performances were immensely gratifying. Unfortunately, real life isn’t a movie. Much of the stomping, shooting, and busting things up John Wayne did in his films would land most of us in court or in the pokey today. (But a man can still dream.)

The Duke’s wonderfully simplistic approach to injustice has often come to my mind, but on no occasion more starkly than a few years ago when one Abdul Rahman faced a possible death sentence in Afghanistan for rejecting Islam. Mr. Rahman had converted to Christianity ten years earlier, and then lived abroad. When he returned to Afghanistan, relatives reported his “crime” to authorities. (Nice family.) Muslim clerics claimed that the Afghan constitution requires Mr. Rahman to die for “offending Allah” (although many have disputed this point). Mr. Rahman was indicted, and his case went to the Afghan courts for prosecution as a capital crime.

abdul rahman

Abdul Rahman

Then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice expressed “grave concern” and a hope for a “positive resolution” of Mr. Rahman’s case to the Afghan authorities, and President Bush said he was “deeply troubled” about the Afghans’ determination to take an action that makes most Americans uncomfortable – even if Afghanistan is a sovereign nation. (It turns out the “peace” meant by the Religion of Peace is actually the peace of the grave.)

While all this was going on, I heard a local talk-show host – an intelligent and reasonable man in his 50s who had been on the air for 30 years – discussing the Rahman case with his morning audience. He had posted a poll on his web-site so listeners could “vote” on whether the United States should intervene or should leave the matter to the Afghan people and their particular brand of “morality” and “justice.”

To my surprise, the host had taken the position that the affair was not our business and we should butt out. His callers’ poll-responses were evenly divided. This suggested that perhaps half of the polite, decent people in the DC-area, with whom we converse and do business every day, thought it was perfectly OK for a man to be executed for worshipping the “wrong god.” Or – to represent their views more generously – maybe they didn’t exactly like the death sentence, but they couldn’t see a legitimate reason to intervene in the affairs of a “sovereign nation.”

Granted, that talk-jock’s unscientific poll samples only people who listen to a radio-show hosted by a white, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road married man in a Maryland suburb of DC. Nevertheless, I found it shocking that such people were not protesting the outrage of putting someone to death for “unbelief.” (I wondered if they would be as theoretical if Mr. Rahman were a Jew or a woman or a gay person similarly threatened.)

Sometimes, children are more reliable barometers of right and wrong than adults. Ask a child if a woman should be killed for believing “wrong things.” I doubt if he will mumble something about respecting the laws of that place. “No!” he will say. “That’s not right.” How about killing a man for his beliefs? The child will look at you scornfully, wondering if you are dim-witted. Of course, that’s wrong, too. There can’t be different laws for men and women.

(On the other hand, those same morally upright children will sometimes bully another child unmercifully because he has an odd name or speaks in a peculiar way. After all, religion is one thing, but a weird name is quite another. You figure it out…)

Years ago, I heard Dr. James Dobson – founder of Focus on the Family and noted evangelical champion of families and children – interviewed on the radio. This was a time when pro-life advocates had done some damage – even violence – to abortion clinics, so the secular-minded interviewer tried to draw Dr. Dobson out on whether he thought abortionists’ “property rights” should be respected by those who opposed their trade. Dr. Dobson gave a memorable answer.

“It really comes down to whether we believe our own rhetoric,” he said, noting that many Christians equated abortion with killing children. “If we truly believe that, how should we respond to abortion?” To clarify what he meant, he asked us to imagine that an establishment outside town was actually killing children – not just fetuses, but healthy, live children whose parents simply didn’t want them. Every day children were being done to death there, but the law-enforcement system had been twisted such that the killing was all “legal.” (If this seems absurd, consider how far abortion has come in a generation.)

What would we do in such a case? Debate over “private property rights”? Worry about breaking the law? Or simply ignore the atrocities? Perhaps some would, said Dr. Dobson, but others would act. They (and hopefully we) would storm that evil place with fire and sword. Fine points of law would be left to lawyers for later discussion. But first, we would stop the killing.

When the Allies liberated concentrations camps at the end of World War II, did civil libertarians issue grave warnings about Nazis’ personal property? Did military leaders and JAG lawyers make sure they had valid search-warrants? Certainly not. Even civil libertarians knew that the grisly work of those camps was wrong, even if it was all “legal” under German law.

Today, abortion proponents distract us with arguments about womens rights, private property, law, and court rulings. But killing the innocent is the central issue. The fact that few of us have taken any real action against abortion tells us – by Dr. Dobson’s calculus – that we don’t really think abortion is killing children. This says something important – and more than a little disturbing – about us as a people.

Mr. Rahman’s situation evoked both abortion and the death camps. Americans love to declaim about “fundamental human rights,” but many fall silent when something ugly and dangerous actually appears. We yearn for John Wayne to ride in, defeat the bad guys, and save the day. Political figures can rarely fill that gap. Tough-talking journalists often turn out to be nancy-boys trying not to let on that they soiled their trousers when the villains with the beheading swords showed up. John Wayne’s famous “Well, pardon me all to hell!” is nowhere to be heard.

john wayne

John Wayne

The reality is that John Wayne isn’t some mythical cowboy. He is us. We – Americans! – are the world’s John Wayne. We can’t ride in, individually, and shoot up the saloon, but we can let our national leaders know that certain situations are intolerable. Luckily for Mr. Rahman, a lot of us told our government that we would not tolerate his execution. Ultimately the Afghan courts dismissed the case against Mr. Rahman. So – is all well that ends well?

Not quite. What of that other 50% (or whatever the true fraction is) who thought Mr. Rahman’s plight was none of our business? What is their problem? And how will things end up for them? It’s great to feel secure in the faculty-lounge or the country club, but that might not always be so.

During the Hitler era a German Pastor named Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) famously opposed the Nazis’ harsh policies, including elimination of group after group of the Reich’s “enemies.” His outspoken resistance landed him in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps where he survived the war. A famous poem attributed to Dr. Niemöller [*] expresses perfectly what the “uninvolved” might one day face:

When they came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I did not speak out; I was not a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

The world is filled with people who think injustice done to their neighbors is not their affair. Some Americans think this, too. One day they might learn that they were mistaken.


[*] Some historians believe the poem was written after Dr. Niemöller’s death.

martin niemöller

Dr. Martin Niemöller