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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Human Rights and Wrongs – 2/06/03

One of the personal items that perished with Israeli astronaut Colonel Ilan Ramon when he died in the space shuttle disaster last Sunday was a drawing made by a 14-year old Jewish boy killed in Auschwitz.

It is called “Mountains of the Moon.” In the foreground are sharply etched mountains. In the dark background above the mountains, light from the earth illuminates the scene.

The sketch was made by Petr Ginz in Terezin. Terezin or Theresienstadt is the Czech town where Jews from Bohemia and Moravia were held before the Nazis shipped them off to other concentration camps during World War II.

15,000 children passed through Terezin. Only 100 survived. Altogether six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 1.5 million of them children. And, some of those children were used for medical experiments before they were killed.

Pavel Friedmann, another young man killed in Auschwitz wrote a poem about a yellow butterfly which was the last butterfly he saw while being held in Terezin. “It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye,” he said.

Ilan Ramon did not want to kiss the world goodbye. He wanted to send it a message.

“There is no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying in space,” he said before liftoff. “We are all the same people, we are all human beings, and I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people.”

Ilan Ramon’s mother was an Auschwitz survivor. Good people? Ilan was a fighter pilot who helped take out a nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. Good people? Ilan Ramon was a citizen of Israel, a country that has been engaged in a perpetual war with its neighbors since it was founded. Good people?

Was Ilan Ramon crazy?

No. In the 20th century thanks to the good that is in most of us, humans reached great heights. But, in the 20th century as a consequence of the darker aspects of human nature that holds sway in some of us we also sank to unprecedented depths. Auschwitz and Terezin are examples of what can happen when one group of individuals demonizes and vilifies another. The space program and its accomplishments are a reflection of how high our ability to reason and work together can take us.

If we can send people into outer space and bring them back again, if we can build robots and increase life expectancies and design computers and the many other machines and products that have made life in the 20th century more livable for great masses of people, then we must have the capacity to fashion a peaceful and just world order. Why haven’t we?

A song by Los Jaivas, a Chilean rock group, put it this way: “Hace mucho tiempo que yo vivo preguntandome para que la tierra es tan redonda y una sola no mas. Para que vivimos separados si la tierra nos quiere juntar?” Or, in translation, “for a long time I have been wondering why the earth is a single unified globe. Why do we live separately (as separate and often warring nations) if the earth wants us to live as one?”

It is largely in order to answer this and the related question of how to structure a world order in which human rights are protected and human welfare maximized that students, faculty, staff, and others have come together to form the University of Massachusetts Boston Human Rights Working Group (UMBHRWG). The goal of the UMBHRWG is to establish a human rights center that would administer an undergraduate human rights program, promote human rights forums, and engage in other human rights activities. The UMBHRWG believes that the same ability to solve problems through reason that has already carried us to the mountains of the moon may be fruitfully applied to issues having to do with peace, justice and social welfare here on earth.

To find out more about the human rights working group go to the university’s home page (www.umb.edu), scroll down to the shortcuts, and click on human rights. That will take you to the UMBHRWG web site. From there you can click “About us” to learn more. Or come to our next meeting in the Chiapas room on the fourth floor of Wheatley (W4-138) on Friday, February 14 (Valentine’s Day) from 12:30 to 2:30. The spirit of Petr Ginz, Pavel Friedmann, Ilan Ramon and the six other astronauts that died with him will be there with you.

I have not seen a butterfly around here is the title of a collection of pictures and poetry by the children of Terezin.

“That butterfly was the last one. Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto,” says the last stanza of the poem by Pavel Friedmann from which the book gets its name.

Butterflies don’t live in outer space either.

Or do they?