The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2012

T 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. R EFLECTIONS My Portable Consciences B Y A NNIE P FORZHEIMER She had been threatened countless times, but never let fear impede her. 78 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 1 2