Editor’s Note: To commemorate the passing of Elie Wiesel, NRO is reprinting the below piece from October 31, 2004.
Elie Wiesel doesn’t think of himself as a political figure. He doesn’t belong to a party and hasn’t endorsed a candidate for president. But back in February of 2003, the Nobel Prize winner and human-rights champion took a stance on one of the most important political questions of the time: He decided to support the American-led invasion of Iraq.
“I have spent my entire adult life defending human rights,” Wiesel told National Review Online in a phone interview last week. “And what does that mean? It means to intervene.”
It happened–in very broad strokes–like this. Wiesel had a meeting at the White House in early 2003 with Condoleezza Rice and the president, whom he had known for some time. When asked what he thought about a possible invasion of Iraq, the Romanian-born Holocaust survivor remembers responding, “I cannot hear myself say that I am for war–war is always cruel, forever inhuman.” Still, he knew Saddam Hussein “was a murderer who had to be stopped.” So, while war is a political decision, he reasoned, intervention is a moral-humanitarian one–and, as such, a decision he could support.
While Saddam’s development of weapons of mass destruction figured prominently in Wiesel’s considerations, so too did the dictator’s brutality toward the Iraqi people and his significance in the broader war against terrorism. Now, Wiesel says, even in light of intelligence shortcomings, “I am pleased that the president decided to remove Saddam Hussein from power, because he had abused his power in order to imprison, torture, and assassinate many of his own citizens.”
Wiesel recalls that after he publicly declared his support for intervention, “some people couldn’t believe that I was for President Bush.” But in his mind, that support was the natural continuation of a lifetime of work to advance human rights. “We had to intervene in South Africa, against apartheid, and in the Soviet Union in its persecution of Jews and minorities and other dissidents…. If mass violations of human rights exist in a country, we must interfere,” he says.
Wiesel believes Americans understand this. He disagrees with the view (popular among antiwar types) that the president dragged us into a war nobody wanted. “I think the support was there in the beginning, and then slowly things began to happen. Suddenly there were no weapons of mass destruction, which had been an important argument in the very beginning. And then the ups and downs. Let’s be honest, every day American soldiers die, and we weren’t prepared for that.” Plus, he says, in Iraq right now we are dealing with a vicious enemy that shows little sign of relenting. “I don’t like the term ‘insurgents.’ Those who kill are assassins, not insurgents. We are dealing with murder. That’s why, I imagine, some Americans feel less enthusiastic about the war.”
But even if the jitters are explainable, Wiesel doesn’t think we should give in to them. The war on terrorism, he explains, is a worldwide human-rights struggle that Americans should be prepared to fight. “I have been trying to alert those who read me or hear me to the threat of terrorism for years,” he says. “The whole world is now in danger.” And America has a leadership role to play: “I believe the United States has been and must remain an example for other nations. [Promoting human rights] is about the celebration of our freedom, and our willingness to defend it.”
Asked whether he thinks Americans have the staying power for a long struggle, Wiesel says, “I think the American people are idealistic. America came twice to Europe to save the continent. We had no economic or any other interest in the first World War and not even the second. America went to war against Hitler because he was evil and that was a just war. The American people have shown their willingness to accept sacrifices.”
Still, he worries we’ll grow listless over time. The greatest threat we face, he says, is “numbness. We become numb. That is a danger because of the numerous terrorist attacks that happen all over the world now. The danger is that so many tragedies will succeed one another we may become indifferent to them. I’ve been fighting indifference since I knew what indifference meant to my generation.”
“I came to America from where I came from,” Wiesel adds, “and therefore I am more sensitive to America’s idealism than those who were born here. For them it is a granted condition to be free, for me it was not. To be free is important, but to bring freedom to those who are not free is even more important.”
Wiesel’s comments implicitly point to an inconsistency in the American character: We are idealistic but impatient, capable of great exertions but not always prepared to sustain them. As he suggests, we tend to see freedom as a default, and forget that it makes constant demands on us. And rarely are those demands more manifest than in times of war. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that democracies are not particularly well suited to “braving great storms” over time. The reason is that “men expose themselves to dangers and privations out of enthusiasm, but they remain exposed to them for a long time only out of reflection.” People tend to “feel much more than they reason; and if the present evils are great, it is to be feared that they will forget the greater evils that perhaps await them in case of defeat.”
Many have argued that, in this election, we’re choosing whether to continue with the long, demanding project we started after September 11, or to try to forget what happened that day, at least until the next reminder.
Wiesel wished to stay out of electoral politics when he spoke to NRO, but he did offer this word of wisdom to American voters: “Every election is significant, but this one is more so. Because I think it could be a turning point. And therefore one should really think twice, three times, in his or her conscience about who he or she thinks is the best person to lead our nation in the coming four years.”
Those are valuable words for Americans to consider on Tuesday.
— Rachel Zabarkes Friedman is an NR associate editor.