In 2014 I presented Sean Penn with one of our prestigious “Champions of Jewish Values” at our star-studded international awards gala. He joined the likes of Elie Wiesel, Sir Ben Kingsley, Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Senator Cory Booker, Senator Robert Menendez, and Senator Ted Cruz. Now, people are calling for us to rescind the award.
I won’t. He earned it fair and square for risking his life to save a Jewish businessman he would have died in a Bolivian hell-hole on false criminal charges.
But that doesn’t mean that I can remain silent in the face of Sean’s whitewashing the crimes of one of the despicable mass murderers of our time, El Chapo.
Mr. Penn’s recent article about Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, leaves me queasy. His meeting with the kingpin and subsequent story detailing the encounter were aided by Rolling Stone—the same magazine that thought it would be cool to portray the Boston Bomber as a rock star now sees fit to publish an article painting one of the most bloodthirsty criminals responsible for murdering thousands and getting millions hooked on drugs as a smiling, misunderstood businessman.
Who can trust a man who has personally admitted to killing two or three thousand people?
While I view Sean as a friend, and I can respect the incredible good deeds he has done helping the poor of Haiti, I am nonetheless stupefied by the views he espouses in this article. Mr. Penn tells El Chapo, “My only interest was to ask questions and deliver his responses, to be weighed by readers, whether in balance or contempt.” And yet, Mr. Penn’s use of descriptions, metaphors, moral relativism and glaring omissions of past crimes, all provoke readers to lean toward sympathy. Mr. Penn paints a comparison between the cartels on the one hand and the users in the U.S. on the other.
Mr. Penn describes how, in October of last year, he began working with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who was able to make contact with El Chapo and arrange a clandestine meeting for them with the drug lord. This, after Ms. del Castillo wrote a bizarre Tweet that appealed to the mass murderer’s goodness. Was she trying to be his Lenie Riefenstahl?
His sympathies are evident in his description of Kate. He praises her as someone “outspoken on politics, sex and religion and is among the courageous independent spirits that democracies are built to protect and cannot exist without.” Unfortunately this same Kate had previously tweeted her distrust of the government of Mexico and revealed how “in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo.” Who can trust a man who has personally admitted to killing two or three thousand people?
This same Kate apparently had high hopes for the potential virtue of this murdering madmen when she tweeted, “What if El Chapo started trafficking with love?” She continued describing her optimistic picture of El Chapo, asking what Mexico would look like if he started building roads and giving back to the people. Doesn’t all this have an earlier resonance with the Columbian drug lord and mass murderer Pablo Escobar who also covered over his bloody crimes with public philanthropy? How naïve can a person be? Giving a killer legitimacy and positive press is immoral and foolish.
I can’t really follow the argument that says the teenager shooting heroin with a needle is the moral equivalent of the drug runner decapitating a journalist to sew fear in his publication.
Mr. Penn describes how she received a lot of criticism for these ideas, but that “Kate’s sentiment is widely shared in Mexico.” I guess he wasn’t including the millions of Mexicans whose lives have been destroyed by drugs, violence and murder, or the 30,000 Mexicans killed this year alone by cartel violence.
Mr. Penn writes how Kate grew friendly with El Chapo over the years, communicating by text message and planning to make a movie about his life.
Mr. Penn describes the drug kingpin as being seen by many as “a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much-needed services in the Sinaloa mountains… a figure entrenched in Mexican folklore.” Read: Escobar Redux.
In his article, Mr. Penn seems to takes El Chapo’s word regarding his use of violence, explaining, “I took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”
That line will go down in infamy. Mao’s great leap forward starving perhaps 30 million was in order to expand the Chinese economy as was Stalin’s collectivization of the farms that similarly killed tens of millions.
Mr. Penn gives into that ever-yearning urge among many so-called humanitarians to draw a moral equivalency when there is none. In this, he tries to establish it between El Chapo and the American people. “Are we, the American public, not indeed complicit in what we demonize?” he asks. “We are the consumers, and as such, we are complicit in every murder, and in every corruption of an institution’s ability to protect the quality of life for citizens of Mexico and the United States that comes as a result of our insatiable appetite for illicit narcotics.”
Errr. I can’t really follow the argument that says the teenager shooting heroin with a needle is the moral equivalent of the drug runner decapitating a journalist to sew fear in his publication.
Describing the official meeting with the drug lord, Penn tells how El Chapo “opens Kate’s door and greets her like a daughter returning from college.
Mr. Penn interprets our country’s criminalization and imprisonment for certain drug offenses as “a question of relative morality.” He describes the severe violence that inmates face in our prisons and asks, “Are we saying that what’s systemic in our culture, and out of our direct hands and view, shares no moral equivalency to those abominations that may rival narco assassinations in Juarez?” In other words, the fact that our prisons our bad, and we as a nation have not done more to make prison life better, makes us the same as cartels who kidnap, torture, rape and kill tens of thousands of people. In the world Sean Penn, we are all bad.
Recounting his meeting with the drug lord, Mr. Penn tells how El Chapo “opens Kate’s door and greets her like a daughter returning from college. It seems important to him to express the warm affection in person that, until now, he’d only had occasion to communicate from afar.”
This Kate that Sean writes so highly of seems really enthralled with the murderer.
During their evening meal, Mr. Penn tells El Chapo, “I understood that in the mainstream narrative of narcos, the under sung hypocrisy is in the complicity of buyers.” He continues by assailing the war on drugs, writing how it has “significantly served to kill our children, drain our economies, overwhelm our cops and courts, pick our pockets, crowd our prisons and punch the clock. Another day’s fight is lost.”
Mr. Penn must believe legalizing drugs is the answer. He continues, “And lost with it, any possible vision of reform, or recognition of the proven benefits in so many other countries achieved through the regulated legalization of recreational drugs.” But even if were marijuana to be legalized throughout the U.S. as it is in Colorado, Oregon and, essentially, Washington D.C., would that excuse El Chapo shipping heroine? Would it absolve him of the crime of murdering an estimated 100 journalists, many with their family members?
Mr. Penn describes the lack of doubt in El Chapo’s eyes and theorizes that it could be due to, “Soullessness… wasn’t it that that my moral conditioning was obliged to recognize in him? Wasn’t it soullessness that I must perceive in him for myself to be perceived here as other than a Pollyanna? An apologist?” He continues, “I tried hard, folks. I really did. And reminded myself over and over of the incredible life loss, the devastation existing in all corners of the narco world.”
Mr. Penn reveals, “This simple man from a simple place, surrounded by the simple affections of his sons to their father, and his toward them, does not initially strike me as the big bad wolf of lore.”
What did Mr. Penn expect? That El Chapo would have their heads on a spike? Did he expect to see remnants of journalists drawn and quartered? How naïve could he be? He is an astute actor. Does he not know a PR stunt when he sees one?
He seems to come to the moral conclusion that Chapo’s “presence conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say silver, and others lead.”
Mr. Penn then exposes the bizarre reasoning that must have accompanied his friendship with other past dictators, coming to the conclusion that El Chapo’s “presence conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk, some say silver, and others lead.”
Again, this has no connection with the scores of innocent people and their family members who El Chapo brutally killed. There is no cultural “complexity and context” when it comes to beheadings.
El Chapo’s attitudes and justifications remind Mr. Penn of Tony Montana from the film Scar Face—he chooses a quote from Tony Montana that is revealing. In the dinner scene when he has a public fight with his wife, Tony goes into his infamous speech: “You’re all a bunch of fucking assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me. So you can point your fucking fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So what’s that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide…how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem. Me?! I always tell the truth even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy. C’mon. Last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like this again, lemme tell ya!”
Tony Montana, for many, is a hero of sorts—the tough guy, real man type who so many wish they could be. The comparisons are troubling for that reason alone, and Mr. Penn sums up the moral relativism he is attempting to prove in this article in these lines, with this quote: “You just know how to hide…how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem.”
Such descriptions are completely off mark in describing the mass murderer. After casually dining and joking, the kingpin grabbed a long barreled gun and changed into protective body armor—a scene Mr. Penn describes as a “Clark Kent-into-Superman extravaganza.” Forgive me Sean, but Lex Luther comes more to mind than Superman.
At the end of the meal, El Chapo impresses Mr. Penn as he “takes each of them [the cooks] by the hand graciously; giving them thanks, and with a look, he invites us to do the same.”
Throughout the article Sean provides no detail what that villainy really was and how many peoples lives this evil individual has destroyed.
Mr. Penn also describes El Chapo’s “chivalry.” They were supposed to meet again, eight days later, but the Mexican government’s raids had forced El Chapo deep underground. He decided to send El Chapo questions which he would respond to in a web video. After a long delay in receiving the answers, Mr. Penn says he finally discovered that El Chapo is “a humble, rural Mexican, whose perception of his place in the world offers a window into an extraordinary riddle of cultural disparity. It became evident that the peasant-farmer-turned-billionaire-drug-lord seemed to be overwhelmed and somewhat bewildered at the notion that he may be of interest to the world beyond the mountains.”
Mr. Penn goes on, “And the day-after-day delays might reveal an insecurity in him, like an awkward teenager bashful to go unguided before the camera.” A humble awkward teenager? And just when you thought Sean had done quite enough to demonstrate that El Chapo could probably not hurt a fly, he adds, regarding his record of wholesale bloody slaughter, “whatever villainy is attributable to this man.” Throughout the article, Mr. Penn provides no detail as to what villainy really was and how many lives this evil individual has destroyed.
There is no description of the 30 bodies of innocent Mexican men and women shot in the head and dumped on the side of the road. The journalists who dared write about El Chapo’s cartel found with their bodies riddle with bullets. The bombings, the decapitations—all mercifully expunged from the article replaced with a gracious El Chapo, the innocent farm boy who growing up in poverty had no choice but to become a drug lord.
Mr. Penn finishes by transcribing the interview, allowing the kingpin to whitewash his image and further spread his propaganda.
Mr. Penn “retrieved a glimpse from the other side, and what is for me an affirmation of the dumb-show of demonization that has demanded such an extraordinary focus of assets toward the capture or killing of any one individual black hat.”
At the beginning of this column, Mr. Penn started with a quote whose relevance I didn’t understand. He writes the words of Montaigne who said, “The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom.” Given the moral relativism that is the very heart of his column, the quote makes perfect sense. In Mr. Penn’s eyes, morality is truly relative, being just a custom that changes from culture to culture, and who are we to judge? In this warped perspective, the Mexican government is bad, El Chapo a Robin Hood freedom fighter who is not that violent, and the drugs that El Chapo exports should be legal in the first place—so why is everyone so upset?
The bottom line is that while we all have an obligation to recognize and help strengthen people in their good deeds, we must also point out when they are grossly mistaken. I took great pride in awarding Sean a prize before the world’s media for saving an innocent life that happened to be Jewish.
I stand by that decision.
But when it comes to Sean Penn’s attempts at whitewashing El Chapo and drawing moral equivalencies between drug cartels and the American people, I must say, Sean’s interview lost its way.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the international best-selling author of 30 books, winner of The London Times Preacher of the Year Competition, and recipient of the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He will shortly publish “The Israel Warrior’s Handbook.”