A Most Basic Human Right

“It’s the right to life!” Stamatis insisted, raising his voice in a deliberate display of pomposity. “What could be a more basic right than that? Even if you conceived of one, how could you enjoy it if you’re already dead?”

“Permit me to disagree, your honor,” I countered sarcastically, “but freedom is the most basic right of all. Existence without freedom is meaningless and that’s why we all recite famous phrases such as ‘give me liberty, or give me death!’”

“I think that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is far more worthy of quotation than Patrick Henry’s speech,” he replied, somewhat irritated. “Need I remind you that in declaring man’s inalienable rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—life is mentioned first, even though liberty alphabetically precedes it? In the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3 states that—”

“Yeah,” I interrupted, “but besides quotations, I have some scientific evidence on my side. A recent study showed that rats confined to a tiny cell go on a hunger strike until they are dead. The inevitable conclusion of the investigators was that the thirst for freedom far exceeds the desire for life, and I fully agree with them.”

Our latest spat had started as soon as we entered the taxi at the Athens International Airport. We had just returned from a business trip in Geneva, where basic human rights were being vigorously debated during the current session of the United Nations. Stamatis, an international lawyer and ardent human rights advocate, considered himself an expert on the subject and treated my disagreements with resentment and disdain. But after fifty years of friendship, I knew how to deal with all of his debating mental acrobatics.

“Human beings are not rats, so quit bringing up all these rat studies you’re enamored with,” he demanded. “Besides, I know by now that you often twist the results and even manufacture scientific studies to suit your arguments.”

Blood was rushing to his face now. My contrarian attitude was enraging him. I was deep into my favorite sport.

“It could be argued that some lawyers are rats,” I countered, laughingly, but before Stamatis could reply, the taxi driver announced—relieved—that we had arrived at our destination.

This destination was a narrow, one-way street in a residential neighborhood of Athens, where Stamatis parked his car before we left for Geneva. Cars were parked on one side of the street only, leaving a path barely wide enough for the traffic. His flat was around the corner, but Stamatis was anxious to confirm that his car battery was still alive. He had to drive me to the bus station early the next morning and then defend an important client at the downtown courthouse later in the afternoon. I was on my way to our house in Kato Kastritsi, Rion, to join the rest of the family for the summer.

We entered his car and Stamatis was about to turn his ignition key, when I noticed a disheveled old lady with an aluminum cane come ambling out of her basement apartment, barely able to climb the steps to the sidewalk. She shuffled hurriedly toward our car, stumbling and almost falling face down on the side door, her cane extended out, nearly crushing the driver’s window.

“Are you O.K.? What is it you want?” Stamatis asked her, rolling down his car window.

“Sir,” she started with a trembling voice. “Sir, for three weeks now I don’t see but your car in front of my window and I am quite fed up with it. Why didn’t you move your car somewhere else during all that time?”

“And why does that bother you?” Stamatis asked with disbelief. “I am legally parked here and there are myriad cars in front and behind me. Even if I went somewhere else, another car would immediately take my place.”

“This is exactly what I mean, sir,” she replied. “The same car all the time in front of my only window is very monotonous. I am a poor woman living alone in this basement apartment, and watching the parked cars outside my window is my one and only enjoyment. I need a variety of cars coming and going—different makes, colors, and shapes—to entertain me. And I need to see the people who use them and make up stories about their lives. Your car, sir, sitting there lifeless for so many days, has been so boring, it’s ruining my life. I’m having trouble eating and my weight has dropped two kilos. I lost interest in my daily chores, and I am starting to have heart tremors and nightmares. I lie in bed at night and the thought of seeing the same car in the morning depresses me. Even suicide is starting to creep into my mind. Please, take it and leave.”

Stamatis’ face registered the guilt of the perpetrator of a wrongful act. Visibly shaken, he turned his car key and after some sputtering, the engine started. He rushed away and searched the streets for fifteen minutes, without his usual outrage at the Athens parking problem. He looked distant—totally preoccupied with the old lady’s situation and predicament. He later admitted that he was shocked that the old lady questioned his reverence for the rights of others.

He finally located a spot, parked the car, and we both walked pensively toward his apartment elevator. As we got on he kept looking down with obvious apprehension.

“The old lady has raised an issue that renders our debate irrelevant and silly,” he muttered without raising his eyes from the elevator floor.

“Yes, she did,” I agreed. “A debate to establish the most basic of human rights would only be of academic interest, anyway, and—”

“You know,” he interrupted me, raising his head and looking at me straight in the eyes, as if he had just experienced a eureka moment, “I think the old lady has just put forth a new human right—the right to a life without overwhelming tedium and dreariness. Certainly the right to an environment that provides some minimum of mental stimulation and excitement. This right may be a very basic one and the old lady’s reaction—mental depression—represents powerful anecdotal evidence of its existence,” he added, his face registering increasing excitement.

“Maybe,” I replied. “But the UN has never recognized such a right, and the current discussions—”

“And something else,” he interrupted me again. “You know that study about those rats that you mentioned? The rats that were confined to a tiny cell and stopped eating until they wasted away?”

“Yes. What about them? You said you were against rats masquerading as humans.”

“What if the investigators misinterpreted the results of their experiment?” he went on, totally ignoring my comments. “What if it wasn’t the lack of freedom that caused those rats to go on a hunger strike? What if the real reason the rats decided to curl up and die was sheer boredom? That could be a rat version of the old lady’s reaction, you know.”

Stunned by his remarks, I remained silent for a few seconds. The sobering episode with the old lady had killed my appetite for continuing the debate game.

“Well, I better come clean then,” I finally replied. “This turn of events merits a serious discussion and that calls for complete honesty on my side.”

“Come clean? Complete honesty? What are you implying?”

“Well, you were right,” I replied meekly. “There is no rat study—I made it all up to strengthen my argument. There have been studies with rabbits but rats are closer to humans and both start with the letter r. I guess I was trying to impress the… taxi driver.”

He looked at me angrily at first, but his face gradually softened and he smiled understandingly—the smile of ageless friendship.

“I am not surprised—this isn’t the first time that you committed a debate foul,” he replied.  “But,” he went on, “we both know now, that if a study were done, the rats would develop symptoms of mental depression, much like the ones suffered by the old lady and the rabbits.”

“They certainly would,” I concurred eagerly, relieved that I was forgiven.

We came out of the elevator and started marching toward the door to his apartment when all of a sudden it hit me.

“You know what just happened with the old lady?” I shouted. “We actually observed and recorded the results of a human experiment—a single-subject one, but still an experiment.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, if scientists wanted to know how humans would react to the deprivation of mental stimulation, what would they do?”

“You’re the scientist, but let me guess. They would employ their accepted scientific approach to perform the experiments on animals (rats, monkeys, etc.), and then draw qualified conclusions about humans. It is unethical to perform them directly on humans, right?”

“Precisely,” I agreed. “Well, you and I serendipitously observed a human experiment directly—the Suffering Old Lady of Athens—and recorded the results. And that was not all we did. We were also brave enough to reverse the scientific process and draw unqualified conclusions about rats. This reversal of the process—experimenting on a human and then drawing conclusions about rats—may be unprecedented in the annals of scientific experimentation.”

“I see,” he replied, laughingly. “And since we are engaged in an orgy of generalizations and exaggerations, let me also add one of my own. We have also articulated a new, most basic human right—access to a mentally stimulating environment. If the world recognizes it, the Old Lady of Athens will be forever enshrined in the annals of human rights and my guilt for parking in front of her apartment will be forever erased. ”

UPDATE: A year later Stamatis reported that the deteriorating parking problem in Athens forced him to park again in front of the old lady’s basement apartment. She is still by her window, in a wheelchair now—unable to rush out and raise her voice against boredom. Her sad, desperate eyes continue to haunt him.