Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tibet—the conscience of the world


"First they came for the Jews. I was silent. I was not a Jew. Then they came for the Communists. I was silent. I was not a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists. I was silent. I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me."

—Martin Niemoller

In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter spearheaded a nations' boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Whatever one thought of the boycott's intention or effectiveness or of Carter's political acumen, he followed his personal conscience and had the courage to speak up in protest for those who could not speak for themselves.

There is, it seems to me, great value and, in the long view, sublime, practical effectiveness in the courage of following one's conscience, and Carter's humanity and genuine decency honored our nation, on that occasion and others.

One of several countries that joined the United States in boycotting the Moscow Olympics was China. Since no leader of China in the last 60 years has exhibited the conscience of a cockroach, its participation in the boycott was more political posturing and payback than concern for the people of Afghanistan. It certainly was not grounded in the courage of conscience. After all, by the time of the 1980 Olympics, China's brutal invasion and subsequent occupation of Tibet was more than 20 years along. Now it is nearly 50 years. In that time the Chinese have reportedly murdered approximately 1.2 million of Tibet's 6 million people and imprisoned and tortured an unknowable tens of thousands more. Han Chinese settlers have flooded into Tibet and now far outnumber native Tibetans. China is systematically attempting to destroy the Tibetan people, their culture, their religion and their environment. Only the conscience of the world will prevent China from succeeding.

What China has done and is doing to Tibet is not so different from what the Soviet Union did to Afghanistan. China is just more successful and has lasted longer as conqueror of Tibet than did the Soviets in Afghanistan. While the Soviets killed approximately 1 million and displaced 5.5 million people during their time in Afghanistan, they left after 10 years.

Think of what it means for both invader and native when the aggressor kills a million citizens of an occupied country and tortures and imprisons those with the courage and integrity to object. What might you think, feel and do if you were a Tibetan? Tibet and the Chinese occupation of Tibet are a troubling, too-little-discussed or -addressed abscess in the world's conscience, one that needs lancing and healing.

So, the obvious political cynicism to China's participation in the 1980 Olympic boycott is now spotlighted by an equally obvious irony in recent calls to the nations of the world to boycott this summer's Olympics in Beijing. China's violent response to non-violent demonstrations in Tibet by Buddhist monks, marking the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation and the escape of Tibet's secular and religious leader, the Dalai Lama, to India, is only business as usual.

But Tibet is the conscience of the world. The Chinese desecration of Tibet can be ignored, hidden and perhaps forgotten for a time, like all conscience, but it is not going to go away. Sadly, the United States has lost the moral high ground that would allow it to boycott an Olympics in protest of another country's invasion and destruction of a sovereign nation. The irony of the United States' being in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, highlights its own political cynicism. And, sadly, we do not have a president whose humanity and genuine decency bring honor to our nation.

Au contraire.

China has even managed to shut down climbing on Mount Everest during the peak season of May so that the Olympic torch can be hauled to the summit of Tibet's highest peak without anyone's protesting the cynicism and irony of the Coca-Cola-sponsored relay on top of the world. It is worth noting that the modern Olympic flame relay was introduced at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to help glorify the Third Reich. Brent Bishop, an American climber who has twice been to the summit of Everest, said, "The Chinese are terrified of a photo being taken of the Olympic torch on Everest next to a 'Free Tibet' sign."

How ironic and revealing to be afraid of a "Free Tibet" sign in Tibet.

Perhaps China will succeed in getting the Olympic torch to the top of Everest without encountering some conscience-stricken mountaineer with a "Free Tibet" sign, a camera and a sense of adventure. Perhaps not.

For those who love freedom, it is fortunate and just that it is unlikely China will be able to stop all photographers and protesters along the entire 85,000-mile route of the Olympic flame from coming up with some photos of "Free Tibet" signs next to the iconic flame heading for Beijing.

Free Tibet.

Free Tibet.

After all, Tibet is the conscience of the world. It needs to be free for the world to be free.

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