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wenty years ago in South
Africa, after reading a newspa-
per article about a valiant
human rights defender who was trying
to protect young black gang members
targeted for assassination by the police,
I picked up the phone and found a way
to meet her. We were both in our mid-
20s; but unlike me, she had no diplo-
matic plates on her car. She had been
threatened countless times, but never
let fear impede her.
Once we traveled to a township
cemetery where she walked down a
row of headstones introducing me to
her friends interred there, one after
another, as if we were at a party. She
dated someone from another race and
faced criticism, yet stayed in the rela-
tionship. When I was with her, I
wanted to protect her and simultane-
ously to live through her courage.
In Turkey before and after 9/11, I
met lawyers who overcame an arcane,
complex legal system to defend free
expression and save detainees from
torture. One was so brilliant that I
worked hard to get him on an interna-
tional visitors’ program with other
human rights defenders to travel to the
United States for two weeks and see
how activists here achieve their goals.
When he returned, he didn’t deliver
the expected paean to our freedoms
when asked about his trip during a din-
ner party we both attended. Instead,
he attacked the blatant racism and hor-
rific state of the U.S. prison system.
A decade ago I regularly talked with
the director of El Salvador’s Human
Rights Center, who had been close to
the Jesuits murdered by the military in
1989. He smiled patiently but skepti-
cally at my talking points. He laughed
out loud at my faith that an elite who
had stolen its country’s wealth for many
years was on a slow-but-sure path to-
ward progress and fairness.
Yet he was equally dismissive of the
left, and enjoyed skewering their clue-
lessness and ideological rigidity. Dur-
ing the 2004 presidential race between
a neo-Stalinist and a former sports-
caster who was wholly owned by the
business community, I told him: “I
don’t know who will win, but I know
where you will be in the next adminis-
tration — in the opposition.”
While on assignment in Kabul two
years ago, I met regularly with the head
of the Independent Human Rights As-
sociation. She would ask me to explain
what, specifically, justifiedmy optimism
that talks with the Taliban would take
the concerns of Afghan women andmi-
norities into account.
Why did I think that supporting a
Pashtun-centered national security ap-
paratus would lead to a sustainable
peace with other ethnic groups? And
when President Hamid Karzai “deliv-
ered” on his promises of women’s par-
ticipation by appointing wives of his
loyalists, what was gained?
She served me tea and spoke in
English perfected by her years in Pak-
istani refugee camps, where she raised
her son singlehandedly and delivered
other refugee women’s babies. She
laughed about once grabbing the pres-
ident’s hand and telling him, “I’m older
than you, so you have to listen to me!”
All my portable consciences —
these men and women and many oth-
ers — poke me hard with their sharp
elbows and deflate me with sarcasm
when I default to clichés, when I don’t
look hard enough to find the options
where justice and American power co-
incide, when I fail to see the obvious
and when I paint too rosy a view.
Thinking of those with no armor
against attack and yet possessed of en-
ergy, courage and will, I pledge to put
down my talking points, sharpen my
powers of observation, and try to find
the plain language they use in order to
say: this is wrong, we can do better, and
this is how.
Annie Pforzheimer, an FSO for 23
years, is director of the Office of Peace
Operations, Sanctions and Counter-
terrorism in the Bureau of Interna-
tional Organization Affairs.
My Portable Consciences
She had been
threatened countless
times, but never let
fear impede her.
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