Before Bush and his cabal of ten-a-penny fascisti decided to weep in public over the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime, before Nick Kristof asked us all to praise his new awareness of child prostitution, before Bay Buchanan and Beverly LaHaye discovered the Taliban were unkind to women and claimed the mantle of female champions for themselves, one man spoke up for those in darkness.
It was the students’ toast to freedom in Antonio Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, leading to their arrest and sentencing to seven years in jail, that first fired Benenson into action.
He wondered how to get them released, hitting on the idea of bombarding the authorities with letters demanding they be freed.
“Peter Benenson’s life was a courageous testament to his visionary commitment to fight injustice around the world,” Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan said in a statement.
“He brought light into the darkness of prisons, the horror of torture chambers and tragedy of death camps around the world,” she added.
Benenson founded Amnesty first as a one-year campaign for the release of six prisoners of conscience before it grew into a worldwide movement for human rights.
The approach was simple — local Amnesty groups adopted “prisoners of conscience” and pestered governments to release them while also writing letters of support to the prisoners themselves.
People like to think that revolutions, movements, great moments in history come when a mass of people act. It’s almost never like that. Almost always, it’s one person, one person alone who has had enough, who cannot stay silent any longer.
Long before we began to use the suffering of others to justify inflicting suffering, Peter Benenson sat down and wrote a letter, asking for freedom. His life brought hope to millions. I hope with all my heart that the place where he is now is a world like the one he envisioned for us all.