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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JULIETTE KAYYEM

A tragedy or merely tragic?

In lukewarm US support of Chinese dissident, a lesson in strategic interests

Protesters demanding the release of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng last week held signs and prayed in front of the White House.

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages

Protesters demanding the release of Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng last week held signs and prayed in front of the White House.

IN THE 1983 movie “Educating Rita,” aging British Professor Frank Bryant teaches his young, commoner student how to read Macbeth. Comparing Shakespeare’s character with someone who is killed by a falling tree, he notes coolly “we must not confuse tragedy . . . with the merely tragic.” Rita doesn’t buy the distinction. It’s a tragedy “for the poor sod under the tree,” she replies.

By the end of the scene, it is not entirely clear if an amused Bryant or an impassioned Rita is correct.

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I’m finding myself in the same linguistic dilemma over the plight of China’s blind lawyer and dissident Chen Guangcheng. The messy and complicated negotiations that occurred between the United States and China to get him out of the American embassy and possibly to the United States suggest we need a new vernacular. Even regarding human rights, there may be a difference between a tragedy and the merely tragic.

To be clear: Chen is a victim of systemic governmental abuse by a nation that is so weak and insecure it manages to turn its dissidents into global martyrs. He deserves, as do the Chinese people, better.

Even if Chen ultimately comes to America on a fellowship, the colleagues and family he leaves behind will likely suffer persecution. So when the United States made the calculation that the strategic and financial interests between the two nations cannot be guided solely by the Chen saga, the familiar condemnation started immediately. While the events still unfolded, the international human rights community complained that Chen was too readily thrown under the bus.

The human rights monologue went something like this: How could we not hold true to universal principles of human rights? How could we not have the moral strength to stand up for one brave man? How could we betray Chen while the whole world is watching? This is a tragedy.

The somber chorus went something like this: the world is a complicated place and nations choose priorities based on their strategic interests. China and the United States are both bigger than one man. The US embassy cannot be a safe-haven for every dissident in the world. This is merely tragic.

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Repeat scene, over and over. One explanation is judgmental; the other is patronizing. But the compromise likely settled on for Chen to attend an American university, and then return to China, suggests there is a space in between.

The damning moralistic judgments about America’s actions in the Chen case also seem inconsistent with the maturation of human rights doctrine in the last two decades. For years, a basic premise animating the human rights community has always been that the horrors of abuse, once exposed, will either shame the offending country to stop or galvanize the international community to protect. It is often an aspiration, but it is one that has surely made this world a less unbearable place.

But it may also be based on two questionable foundations that have put the community under strain. First, that if only we “named” more often, then offenders would stand down. Silence, the argument goes, allows bad governments to do very bad things. But that simply isn’t the case: Syria is the most obvious example. Second, while the push for the international community “to protect” may have been evidenced in the military actions to dismantle the leadership in Libya, it is not yet clear whether that was an aberration or a new norm.

It is a testament to the human rights community that its relevance in global affairs may demand a new vernacular. Major atrocities, and ethnic genocide, are different in scope and magnitude from the plight of a single man. Those familiar slogans — the whole world is watching — are at risk of overuse, and therefore irrelevance, when applied to all things constituting a tragedy and the merely tragic. The Chen case is complicated, but it isn’t Bosnia.

Many policy commentators and activists are quite certain in their analysis of Chen’s case and the merits, or lack thereof, of America’s actions. For the rest of us, this last week was probably somewhere in that space between Macbeth and the poor sod under the tree. It’s just hard to find the words to explain it.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem

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