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Drew Cline: Are you as brave as Katrina Lantos Swett?

February 04. 2015 9:28PM

ON WEDNESDAY, Katrina Lantos Swett was hoarse from having spent a certain recent evening at the home of one of her daughters in Washington, D.C.

“I was one of the screaming, rabid Patriots fans,” she said with some effort three days after the Super Bowl. So it was that on Sunday, the New England Patriots accomplished two stunning feats. They won their fourth Super Bowl since 2002 and they nearly silenced Katrina Lantos Swett, raising the possibility that Bill Belichick could be the plant of some despotic regime. Perhaps Saudi Arabia, which Lantos Swett gained international attention for publicly shaming two weeks ago?

Swett’s voice — sharp, clear and illuminating — is a stinging weapon in the never-ending fight for human rights. Pulling double duty as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF) and president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, the Granite Stater has made herself one of America’s most prominent human rights advocates. Her voice makes a lot of bad people uncomfortable.

That is not the impression a stranger might get upon passing Lantos Swett on the street. One might mistake her for the wife of a former Congressman (which she is) or a take-charge executive (which she is), but the petite, immaculate figure she cuts does not scream “human rights activist,” which is another reason for her effectiveness. Being simultaneously disarming and persuasive has its advantages.

So does bravery. Lantos Swett is courage wrapped in a designer sweater and draped with pearls.

Last May, a Saudi Arabian court sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to a decade in prison and 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. Amnesty International highlighted Badawi’s case, but it was not until last week that the Saudis appeared to have had second thoughts. Between Badawi’s first 50 lashes and his scheduled second set, Lantos Swett and six other members of the CIRF sent a letter to the Saudi ambassador to the United States. In it, each of them offered to take 100 of Badawi’s lashes for him.

On Wednesday, Lantos Swett said the Saudis had made no official response to the letter. However, “they have not yet lashed him again. We have heard through channels that they are sort of looking for an exit ramp from this situation. In that part of the world, there is a need to save face.”

Before signing the letter, which was the idea of commission member and Princeton professor Robert George, Lantos Swett went through some doubts. “When I first thought of it when Robbie said we need to do something more, I had a knot in the pit of my stomach,” she recalled. “I thought, am I really brave enough to do this? Even though I have worked in the field of human rights for so long, that feeling of fearing for my physical safety renewed my sense of the battle we are in.”

Her time in the field has spanned more or less her entire life. Her father, the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., was a Holocaust survivor and internationally renowned champion of human rights. She described him as “somebody who was incredibly vigilant of the dangers of appeasement. It made him in some ways a difficult father. He didn’t believe in appeasing little terrorists at home, either. He believed very strongly that if you begin to cede ground it is harder to recapture that ground. Since our values are the foundation of our society, it is critical not to cede those freedoms.”

Of those values, she sees religious freedom as “the indispensible foundation of a just, free, tolerant, economically prosperous society. It was our secret sauce to what made America different.”

Worldwide, religious persecution “has increased at an alarming rate,” she said. But Americans do not have to be complacent about it. Those who live comfortably in the “Live free or die” state can make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who suffer under the boots of oppressive regimes in darkened corners of the world. Her father taught her this after he helped publicize the plight of Soviet dissidents.

“When someone becomes something of a cause celebre, it buys them protection. It really does.” So, write letters to Congress, to the Obama administration, and to the governments that are persecuting their own people, she says with feeling.

“I would write letters to the government of Saudi Arabia. ‘We are not going to travel to the kingdom. We are going to look to ways to withhold support from your kingdom while this unjust and brutal sentence stands.’ I would bring it to the attention of their faith communities so they can strategize with other people.”

Those faith communities have been critical in pressuring the Saudis. Since her letter, many people, religious and not, have written to ask how they can sign up to take some of Badawi’s lashes. But support from people of faith is pouring in, as it did during the Holocaust.

“What is it that gives people the strength to do that? Very often people of faith have a much longer-term perspective on things. They believe there is something beyond this life. They feel there is motivation to behave in such a way that their eternity is secure, not just the here and now. It is, yes, empathy, compassion, kindness, but they feel that they will be called to account for their conduct, and they want to be able to give a good account.”

Those so moved can sign the commission’s petition and offer to take some of Badawi’s lashes on his behalf. Yet as the citizens write, the government misses opportunities to lead. It has, she said reluctantly, not always taken the firm stands necessary to protect the persecuted.

“Some of the times when we haven’t responded as aggressively as I would have liked, we have tried to be sensitive,” she said. But that sensitivity can help the oppressors, not the victims.

“We are probably not helping our many friends and allies in the Muslim world when we seek not to help them move forward as a community to get to that place” where they can tolerate dissent. “That is by no means an endorsement of people who give gratuitous offense. I am saying that the policy focus should be on helping societies to understand that if you embrace robust protections of religious freedom with all of the discomfort it brings, you will benefit in countless ways as a society. That’s what our policy should be.”

While we wait for our policy to become what it should be, Katrina Lantos Swett shames autocrats by exposing their brutality to the world.

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. His column runs on Thursdays. His Twitter handle is @Drewhampshire.

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