Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett is President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, which was established to carry on Congressman Tom Lantos’ legacy. She is also the former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 2012 to 2013, and then in 2014 to 2015, and a juror for the biannual Global Business & Interfaith Peace Awards.
“An American by choice” was the phrase my father, the late Congressman Tom Lantos, often used to describe himself. A Hungarian-born Jew who became the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in the U.S. Congress, he focused his nearly three decades of service on the cause of human rights and justice. He believed that his adopted homeland possessed powerful moral stature, which we should use to fight for a more just, democratic and inclusive world.
Though my father loved and believed deeply in America, he was neither blind nor indifferent to its many flaws and failures — above all, its original sin of slavery and the centuries of persecution, discrimination and institutionalized racism that have followed. He spoke of American history as a long and painful journey to close what he termed “the hypocrisy gap”. By this, he meant the enormous and shameful chasm between the ennobling principles of equality and dignity enunciated in our founding documents and the bitterly disappointing reality of racism and other failures in America’s culture and systems.
Terrible and revelatory events have now shaken our nation and, perhaps, awoken us from our complacency and apathy towards the existing hypocrisy gap in America. We stand at a critical juncture, which will determine whether the chasm widens or whether we take meaningful steps to close it. I find myself thinking deeply about how my father would respond to this moment. Here is what I believe:
He would be heartbroken and outraged by the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others like them at the hands of law enforcement. He would be appalled by and decry the ways in which our system has continued to perpetuate racism across many aspects of society, from policing, to education, to housing and the justice system.
He would thunder against any effort — from any quarter — to vilify, stifle or silence the largely peaceful protests that have spread across the country. Having lived under the brutality of both fascism and communism, he would not hesitate to raise his voice against injustice and in support of our precious right to speak out against it.
Moreover, I believe my father would be dismayed to see the way in which our nation’s failures undermine America’s ability to speak with moral authority about egregious and systemic abuses in closed and autocratic societies around the world. He would remind us that the fight for human rights must begin at home, and he would caution that the failure to live up to our ideals not only causes deep harm to our fellow Americans, particularly Black Americans and other communities of color, but also damages our credibility as a human rights leader fighting for other oppressed peoples of the world. As a former assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor has put it, recent events in America are the “biggest gift we could possibly have given to Putin or Xi Jinping and to every other dictator around the world who delights in arguing that America’s government is no different than theirs.”
I believe my father would reject efforts to draw a false moral equivalence between our flawed, but ultimately fixable nation, and countries where rule of law and basic rights simply do not exist. Yet, he would also disagree with those who do not recognize that our problems are not isolated or mere aberrations. He would quote Adlai Stevenson, who once said, “Solutions begin by telling the truth.” He would declare unequivocally that the time has come for America to face the truth: As a nation with a great capacity for self-renewal and improvement, we have narrowed the hypocrisy gap over our history; but we have much work left to do in order to live up to the ideals upon which this nation was built and the values of human rights and justice that we promote throughout the world.
Tom’s formative years as a new American coincided with the civil rights era, and he deeply admired and respected colleagues like Congressman John Lewis, who personally endured so much in the struggle for civil rights. He also felt a keen sense of pride that many of the most devoted allies of the civil rights movement came from the American Jewish community. These heroic figures inspired his own human rights activism, much in the same way his legacy now inspires me and many others.
Today, the sight of Americans of every color and background standing together to demand that our country live up to the full measure of our founding creed would stir my father deep in his soul. I have no doubt that he would add his eloquent voice to the call for profound reform and renewal in the country he so loved. He would urge us to use this historic moment to wrestle with the hard truths and make long overdue changes that will allow us to claim the phrase “all men [and women] are created equal” without hypocrisy.
I believe we can do the hard work required to close the hypocrisy gap and to “form a more perfect union”. In doing so, we will build the America that my father believed was possible and reclaim for America the hard-earned right to lead the world in the global fight for human rights and justice for all.