During his decades as a New York Times correspondent, the late A.M. Rosenthal saw lots of dead bodies in Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kashmir, India and other troubled lands.
One day in Calcutta he started asking questions: What if some of these people are dying, but not yet dead? Was he supposed to help them? These questions stayed with him when he returned home to become an editor.
“I devoted a great deal of my time and thinking to wondering: When is it a sin to walk past a dying person? What number does God have? Is it one? Is it two?”, asked Rosenthal, in a BreakPoint radio interview after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
What if we know that torture is taking place, but cannot see the evidence with our own eyes or hear it with our own ears? Does God forgive those who don’t act? “Is that what God is saying: ‘If you can’t see them, it’s OK to walk away from them?’ Or is he saying, ‘If you can’t hear them?’ Suppose you can hear them, but not see them, or they’re around the corner. When is apathy a sin?”
Rosenthal kept these questions to himself as his career soared. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter he covered the world and, as editor, he caused a journalistic earthquake when he pushed for the publication of the Pentagon Papers. For 56 years Abe Rosenthal helped change the New York Times and, thus, helped shape his times.
After leaving the editor’s desk in 1986, he began writing his ?On My Mind? op-ed columns in which he championed the human-rights causes that dominated his life — free speech and freedom of conscience. Rosenthal was a secular Jew and an old-fashioned liberal from the Bronx, but many of his old questions about liberty, sin and apathy began to break into the open and affect his work.
“Abe fought to cure our blind spots and it worked,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof, speaking at Rosenthal’s May 14 funeral at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. “He did indeed teach us to see.”
The healing process wasn’t painless, especially when Rosenthal latched onto one particular religious issue. Some human-rights activists are convinced that one of the reasons he lost his column and was forced to leave the Times was because he wouldn’t stop writing about the persecution of religious minorities around the world.
Rosenthal couldn’t understand why so many journalists just didn’t “get” that story. I talked to him several times about this issue, in part because Jewish conservative Michael Horowitz sent him a copy of a 1996 column that I wrote about the slaughter of Christians and animists in South Sudan and the rebirth of the slave trade.
Rosenthal said he asked some newsroom colleagues this wasn?t a big news story. No one had a good answer. He ended up writing — in 1997 alone — 20 columns about the persecution of Christians, Buddhists, moderate Muslims and other religious minorities in human-rights hot spots around the world.
“You don’t need to be a rabbi or a minister to get this story. You just need to be a journalist. You just have to be able to look at the numbers of people involved and then look at all the other stories that were linked to it,” he told me, at the end of that year. “Why are journalists missing this? … I am inclined to believe that they just can’t grasp the concept of a movement that includes conservatives, middle-of-the-road people and even some liberals. Their distrust of religious people — especially conservatives — is simply too strong for them to see what is happening.”
With his columns, Rosenthal helped pave the way for the passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997 and the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Now, that hard-to-label coalition that fought for justice in South Sudan is, with a jolt of Hollywood star power, rallying support for the peace process in Darfur, where Islamists are attacking other Muslims.
Rosenthal refused to keep quiet. After his death, a Time editorial underlined the importance of a key Rosenthal statement about the Pentagon Papers: “When something important is going on, silence is a lie.”
That’s a great quote, one that perfectly explains why Rosenthal was so driven to write about religious persecution.
When believers are dying, silence is a lie.