Silence Is Not An Option

Cates: They look at me as if I was a murderer.

Drummond: In a way you are; you kill one of their fairy tale notions and they’ll bring down the wrath of God, Brady, and the state legislature on you every time.

Rachel: You make a joke out of everything.

Drummond: Young lady, I know what Burt is going through. It’s the loneliest feeling in the world. It’s like walking down an empty street listening to your own footsteps, but all you have to do is to knock on any door and say if you let me in, I’ll live the way you want me to live and I’ll think the way you’ll want me to think and all the blinds will go up and all the doors will open and you’ll never be lonely ever again. Now, it’s up to you.

—”Inherit The Wind,” a fictional dramatization of the Scopes aka Monkey Trial (1960)

As Jews we are no strangers to silence in the face of injustice.

On March 25th, Bob Levinson’s family posted a statement telling the world that they had concluded that their beloved husband and father, the longest held hostage in American history, died in Iranian custody. In part it read, “Bob Levinson should have spent his last moments surrounded by his family and all the love we feel for him. Instead, he died alone, in captivity thousands of miles away, in unbelievable suffering. His body has not yet been returned to us for a proper burial. We don’t even know when, or even if, his body would be returned to us. This is the very definition of cruelty.”

“Those who are responsible for what happened to Bob Levinson, including those in the U.S. government who for many years repeatedly left him behind, will ultimately receive justice for what they have done. We will spend the rest of our lives making sure of this, and the Iranian regime must know we will not be going away. We expect American officials, as well as officials around the world, to continue to press Iran to seek Bob’s return, and to ensure those Iranian officials involved are held accountable.”

They thanked those they felt worked hard to locate and free him — from the president and specific people in his administration to those in the FBI and specific senators and congressmen. Our own Senator Menendez was cited, and he made his own statement that included, “The Iranian regime is fully responsible.”

But the world was silent.

A week later, on April 2, there was a blow to justice for another kidnapped victim, Daniel Pearl, who was beheaded in 2002. That day a Pakistani court commuted the death sentence of British-born Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the depraved architect of Danny’s kidnapping and execution. He may be released in less than a week. Three others who had life sentences also were set free. Asra Nomani, a Wall Street Journal colleague and good friend of Danny Pearl’s when he was abducted, told the press, “Eighteen years ago, on January 23, 2002, Omar Sheikh set the trap for the kidnapping of an innocent citizen of humanity, Danny Pearl. Today, Danny is betrayed a second time by this miscarriage of justice that would release Omar Sheikh to walk free on this earth.

“Omar Sheikh is a danger to society. For the sake of all journalists, we must realize justice for Danny.”

Danny’s father, Judea Pearl, tweeted, “It is a mockery of justice. Anyone with a minimal sense of right and wrong now expects Faiz Shah, prosecutor general of Sindh, to do his duty and appeal this reprehensible decision to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.” And the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted, “Chairman @EliotEngel: Deeply concerned by Pakistan court’s overturning of convictions for the abduction & Killing of Daniel Pearl. It’s critical Pakistan demonstrate a real commitment to addressing its longstanding terrorism problem by holding those involved accountable.”

Will the world demand justice for Daniel Pearl?

Now, what happens when a country’s leadership not only puts its own population in danger but through its silence, extends this to the world? In the beginning, there was the suppression of Dr. Li Wenliang, practicing in Wuhan, China, and his fellow medical whistleblowers, when they tried to alert people to the virulent nature of covid-19. When Dr. Wenliang sent out a WeChat message to fellow doctors in December 2019, warning them to protect themselves from the SARs-like disease, the repressive totalitarian regime had him “summoned to the Public Security bureau and required to sign a letter in which he professed to have made “false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order,” according to the New York Post. Dr. Wenliang died of covid-19 in February, leaving a young child and a pregnant wife.

And he wasn’t the only one who was alarmed. According to the Sunday Times of London, citing Chinese site Caixin Global, researchers were put under gag orders and told by China’s National Health Commission in early January to destroy samples from sick patients that showed “alarming similarities between their illnesses and the 2002 SARS virus.” Why didn’t Chinese officials share this information with the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention when they visited Wuhan on January 8th, when the government already knew that covid-19 was contagious?

For those who think this is a one-time incident, it is important to recall the SARS cover-up of 17 years ago. In a piece in the New York Times by Li Yuan called “China Silences Critics Over Deadly Virus Outbreak,” Yuan writes about Dr. Jiang, the military doctor who also was a whistleblower. Yuan writes that Jiang “has been put under periodic house arrest and forbidden to visit the United States to collect a human rights award. He is also portrayed as a bad role model. A multiple-choice question posed by a test-prep school in 2017 asked about Dr. Jiang’s decision. The correct answer was B: It was wrong because it harmed the interests of the nation, the society and the community and should be subject to legal punishment.” Please note, that test question is from 2017 — only three years ago!

In a global world, each country needs to be responsible to the others, especially regarding health issues. For me, the virus became personal less than 24 hours ago, when my friend died alone, without her partner of almost two decades by her side, due to safety protocols necessary to protect against this wicked scourge. Thinking of her without those she loved as her life slipped away, and the anguish of her family members, thinking that perhaps her body may be stored in a refrigerator truck, is beyond painful. The pain is made even worse with the lingering question of whether this would have happened if the Chinese government had been transparent In December instead of silencing Dr. Wenliang and his fellow whistleblowers, many whom are dead or missing.

As dramatized in “Inherit the Wind,” subordinating your morality to the majority will lead to no one questioning or attacking you. But going along to get along doesn’t guarantee your family’s safety. Most of us learned that when we experienced discrimination or were attacked by the bully at school. Without making the rules clear and without holding people accountable by levying consequences that matter, or in some cases are more painful than pursuing their preferred behavior, you will remain a target until you fight back successfully. Silence doesn’t set anyone free.

There are many things we won’t know until this pandemic is safely in our rear view mirror. We do know, however, that the Chinese leadership’s deliberate obfuscation of critical information for at least six weeks, if not months, cheated the world of precious time to develop a plan that could have been put into action earlier to stop or at least mitigate the fear, death, and devastation that more than 150 countries are dealing with. It also cheated the Chinese people from having the world’s best medical minds work together, not only to save my friend but also maybe from saving many of the Chinese people whose suffering we have yet to fully comprehend. If we want to make sure this doesn’t happen again, the Chinese leadership must be held accountable. Silence is not an option.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.
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