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June 14, 2004

Scholar tells Class of 2004: 'Even if you feel like a chicken, fly like an eagle'


A farmer has a strange-looking chicken. A wise woman tells him his "chicken" is really an eagle. She takes the bird to a precipice and says, "You are an eagle. You can change your world. Go fly." The bird looks up at the sky, down at the abyss, back at the comfort of the barnyard. "Sorry," it says. "I don't really feel like an eagle. I feel like a chicken. I don't think I can fly." The woman replies, "That's your choice. But remember, you are responsible for the decisions you make. If you don't dare to fly, you will never be fully alive. So even if you feel like a chicken, fly like an eagle."

Political science Professor Terry Karl relayed this story, made famous by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to 3,000 seniors and their families gathered Saturday in Ford Plaza for the 2004 Class Day Luncheon. "That [strange-looking] chicken comes to mind every time there is a choice between taking an easy path or making a trail where there is no road," she said.

Karl is the Gildred Professor of Latin American Studies, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for International Studies and the William R. and Gretchen B. Kimball University Fellow in Undergraduate Education. Her interests include international relations, political and economic development and human rights.

"Your university years have been defined by two distinct crimes against humanity -- September 11 and torture in Iraq," she said. "The lesson from these two crimes is the same: Our own security is intimately bound up with our ability to use both our brains and our hearts. It rests on our capacity to analyze and empathize, to affirm the principles of equal respect, and to expand, not contract, human rights protections."

Crimes like the 9/11 attacks or torture of Iraqi prisoners can only occur when victims are portrayed as less than human, she said. "They are only possible when all lives are not valued equally."

Since 9/11, torture of prisoners in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq has happened "with the institutional approval of the U.S. government, complete with memoranda from the president's own counsel, with official declarations aimed at side-stepping the historic safeguards of the Geneva Accords, and with actual written policies permitting the 'use of moderate physical force' -- policies that have been ruled violations by U.S. courts, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Court and the Supreme Court of Israel," Karl asserted.

"No amount of military power will make up for what we lose if the world at large believes that, despite our years of rhetorical support for rights and democracy, we are prepared to compromise them the moment our own lives become threatened."

Being an eagle "means placing the rights of all human beings, and not just our own rights, at the center of a moral code and an international order. It means raising, not lowering, the bar."

The quest for accountability is not a new one for Karl. After completing her Stanford doctorate in 1982, she went to El Salvador to research human rights abuses. Military leaders repeatedly assured her that their army did not commit abuses. But countless citizens said they had been blindfolded for days, deprived of sleep, food and water, and beaten, raped and forced to watch the torture and murder of others.

At El Mozote, a site where a forensic team would later dig up the bodies of more than 100 children, a peasant woman approached Karl. "You are American. You are powerful. You will find out who is responsible for this." That night, flying back to the United States, Karl's thoughts railed against that woman. "Powerful? A general is powerful. A president is powerful. A department chair is powerful. I am 5 feet tall. I am a woman from Missouri, and I don't have tenure. I am not powerful."

Two decades later, in a Florida courtroom, Karl served as expert witness in the trial of two Salvadoran generals living in the United States. As their country's top commanders, they were charged with responsibility for the abuse of Salvadoran civilians.

Karl documented how the generals' actions were interpreted down the chain of command as a "green light" to commit torture. The generals argued that they could not be expected to control the actions of all their soldiers. Why, they asked, were they on trial for what a few "bad apples" had done?

Because the law demands it, Karl said.

"The doctrine of 'command responsibility' is the product of an American initiative enshrined in law since the Nuremberg Statutes after World War II," she said. It affirms that civilian and military leaders may be held legally accountable for abuses committed by their subordinates -- even when the commanders did not personally order abuses, witness abuses, have direct knowledge about abuses or conspire to commit abuses. Authorities have a duty to prevent crimes, control troops, act when a crime is discovered and punish those found guilty of committing the actual crime.

In a world-watched ruling that reaffirmed the doctrine of command responsibility, the Florida jury found the generals responsible for the human rights abuses.

Karl called the Class of 2004 "eagles" and urged them to fly. "Whether you run a business or a community organization, a clinic or a school, assume responsibility for the long-range prospects of your country and our troubled Earth," she said. "Aim high for a world without war and without genocide, a world that respects all, a world that is far greater than the one that my generation is handing to you."


Also at Class Day

The Stanford Alumni Association and the Class of 2004 sponsored Class Day. Before Karl's talk, Alumni Association President Howard Wolf spoke about ways for graduates to stay connected with Stanford.

Nadiya Figueroa was presented with the J. E. Wallace Sterling Award, which recognizes a senior whose activities demonstrate strong potential for continued service to the university and alumni community.

In addition, the Class of 2004 presented President John Hennessy with a check for $141,285.28. The funds will go to the Stanford Fund for Undergraduate Education.


Editor Note:

A photo of Karl is available at .



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,

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