“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
John Stuart Mill
Roberto Escobar lives today in his old age, nearly blind from opening a letter bomb. He was the accountant for his brother, Pablo’s infamous drug empire, the Medellín Cartel. At a certain point in time, they were responsible for smuggling 15 tons of cocaine per day to the United States. They made so much money that they had to spend over 1,000 US dollars per week just on rubber bands to wrap their stacks of cash.
Roberto wrote of his late brother and his past life, “I think about my brother every day. He was brilliant and kindhearted, passionate and violent. He was a man of both poetry and guns. To many people he was a saint, to others he was a monster. I think about him as a young child, lying next to me as we hid beneath our bed while the guerrillas came during the night to kill us all. I think about the drug organization he built and ruled, a business that stretched throughout much of the world and made him one of the richest men on earth. I think about the good things he did with that money for so many people, the neighborhoods he built, the many thousands of people he fed and educated.
“And, less often, I think about the terrible things for which he was responsible, the killings and the bombings, the deaths of the innocents as well as his enemies and the days of terror that shocked nations. I think about the sweet days and nights we spent with our families and friends…and I think about the hard times we spent together living in the prison he built on a mountaintop and the many escapes into the jungle we made together as the army and the police searched desperately for us. At times our lives were like a dream, and then we lived in a nightmare.”
Like so many others in Colombia, as young children Roberto and Pablo lived poor, and not to mention, in fear — They were born into a bloody civil war between the Conservatives and the Liberals, a period the Colombians call “La Violencia”, when thousands of innocent people were hacked to death with machetes by peasant guerilla armies. “In Colombia, poor people have always tried to help each other,” wrote Roberto. “But our poverty made an impression on our lives that neither my brother nor I ever forgot.”
Abraham Lincoln once observed that “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” With the power that he possessed, Pablo Escobar helped the poor. He paid the medical expenses for those who couldn’t afford them, he sponsored the college education for young people, he built hospitals and equipped them, he built hundreds of soccer fields, he fed the hungry, he bought homes for the homeless, and helped the unemployed get honest jobs.
Though Pablo did many terrible things, he never forget the poor people, and even today, they still love him for it. Beneath his calloused shell, he always had a heart for helping those in need. The journalist Virginia Vallejo was even touched by his kindness, because he “was the only rich man in Colombia who was generous with the people, in this country where the rich have never given a sandwich to the poor.” She fell in love with the generous Pablo, but resented the drug kingpin Escobar.
One could argue that Pablo Escobar was the product of society itself. As Roberto explained, Colombia, for all its beauty, is a place where corruption has always been an accepted part of life. From the time Roberto and Pablo were growing up, the country was governed by a class of wealthy families that did very little to aid the poor. While their corrupt leaders claimed that they were starting programs to help the unfortunate, they were only making themselves rich. From the highest offices of the politicians to the policemen on the streets, people used whatever power they had, no matter how large or small, for personal gain. The police, for instance, was badly paid and poorly trained, so many of them took bribes just to survive. “It was not considered good nor bad, it’s just the way it has always been,” said Roberto.
Believe it or not, even Pablo Escobar started with good ambitions. He studied political science and dreamed of becoming the president of Colombia. Roberto would remember him saying, “I want to be the president of Colombia, and when I am I’ll take 10% of the earnings of the richest people to help the poor. With those funds we’ll build schools and roads.” Roberto wrote, “Pablo had very large dreams, but he had no money to make them come true. He was forced to drop out of the university because he could not pay the necessary fees. When you’ve grown up poor, as we did, the need to make money is always uppermost in your mind. Maybe it was ordained that eventually Pablo would work outside the law.”
The comedian Trevor Noah wrote that “In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects.” To that we may add, we also fail to do anything when we see horrible things around us because we don’t see how it could affect all of us as a whole.
It’s not only in what we do, but in what we don’t do, that injustice lies. It’s not enough that we don’t do bad things. We need to be a force for good in the world we live in, however best we can. Declining to get involved or to speak out because we feel that it isn’t our business, is just as bad as committing the crime.
When Roberto thought of the death of thousands of innocent people that Pablo was responsible for in his drug wars, he also thought about how all of that could have been avoided. If only he had done more to convince Pablo to quit the business cold turkey. If only he had been more firm on his younger brother. Or maybe crime would not have been a huge part in the people’s lives, if their leaders were more selfless and had taken good measures to help them.
Similarly, how different history would have turned out if J. Robert Oppenheimer spoke out against the use of the atomic bomb, after he witnessed its destructive power in the testing grounds. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his failure to say no very much haunted him for the rest of his life.
This goes out to daily affairs in life too. An absent parent doesn’t do a good job at showing his love to his kids, and they grow up not knowing what a secure attachment feels like. A talented young student in school doesn’t have a proper outlet for him to put out his skills, and he lives most of his life, if not the rest of it, thinking that he doesn’t have much value.
But there are among us who don’t sit back and watch. There are those who take action, speak out, or at the very least, despise injustice when they see it.
As said by the Prophet (pbuh) in a hadith narrated by Muslim, “Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then (let him change it) with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith.”
And as always, it’s a lot better to start small and be consistent, rather than planning something revolutionary and not following through with it — Pick up the trash when you see it, no matter who dropped the litter. Donate just a little more to help the unfortunate. Let your friends and family know what they mean to you. These kind of things might seem small, but they really do make a huge difference.
When the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the German pastor Martin Niemöller was in the same position as many others — He stayed silent, and was cowardly about voicing out, because he didn’t immediately see how it affected him and his people. He eventually found the courage to fight against Hitler and the Nazis, and in the midst of his brave struggle, he left us a beautiful poem for us to remember :
First they came…
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.