January 5, 2000
Darrell Lee Ohlau
‘You are human and you have lived the depth of what that means.’ Eleanor Coppola
This is the tribute statement posted on Monday by Congressman Jamie Raskin and Sarah Bloom Raskin on the remarkable Life of their son, Tommy Raskin, who gave up his life on New Year’s Eve.
“On January 30, 1995, Thomas Bloom Raskin was born to ecstatic parents who saw him enter the world like a blue-eyed cherub, a little angel. Tommy grew up as a strikingly beautiful curly-haired madcap boy beaming with laughter and charm, making mischief, kicking the soccer ball in the goal, acting out scenes from To Kill A Mockingbird with his little sister in his father’s constitutional law class, teaching other children the names of all the Justices on the Supreme Court, hugging strangers on the street, teaching our dogs foreign languages, running up and down the aisle on airplanes giving people high fives, playing jazz piano like a blues great from Bourbon Street, and at 12 writing a detailed brief to his mother explaining why he should not have to do a Bar Mitzvah and citing Due Process liberty interests (appeal rejected).
“Over the years he was enveloped in the love not only of his bedazzled and starstruck parents but of his remarkable and adoring sisters, Hannah the older and Tabitha the younger, a huge pack of cousins, including Jedd, Emily, Maggie, Zacky, Mariah, Phoebe and Lily, Boman and Daisy, and Emmet and spoiled rotten with hugs and kisses and philosophical nourishment from his grandparents Herb and Arlene Bloom, Marcus Raskin, Barbara Raskin, and later Lynn Raskin, the best aunts and uncles a mischievous ragamuffin could ask for, including Erika and Keith, Kenneth and Abby, Mina, Noah and Heather, Eden and Brandon, and Tammy and Gary, and a cast of secondary parents who wrapped him in adoration and wildly precocious conversation like Michael and Donene, Ann and Jimmy, Kate and Hal, Kathleen and Tom, Katharine and David, Judy, Reed and Julia, Dar and Michael, David and Melinda, Angela and Howard, Helen, Sheila, Mitchell, Will and Camille, Phyllis, Shammy, Khalid and Zina.
“With all this love infusing Tommy’s world and soul, girls quickly came to fancy this magical boy who always made time for the loneliest kids in class and frequently made up his own words to describe feelings and parts of toasters — and, to be clear, he took a strong liking to girls too, these omnipresent magical lovely girls he found who always had a profound beauty radiating from within. Tommy was raised on a fine Montgomery County Education, which took him through Takoma Park Elementary School, Pine Crest Elementary School, Eastern Middle School, and Montgomery Blair High School (with a frolicking detour to Ecole Active Bilingue Jeannine Manuel in Paris for one family sabbatical year where he learned French, tried to teach himself Japanese, and insisted on travel adventures through North Africa and the rest of Europe), but his irrepressible love of freedom and strong libertarian impulses made him a skeptic of all institutional bureaucracy and a daring outspoken defender of all outcasts and kids in trouble. Once when third-grade Tommy and his father saw a boy returning to school after a weeklong suspension and his Dad casually remarked, ‘it looks like they let finally let him out of jail,’ Tommy replied, ‘no, you mean they finally let him back into jail.’
“At Blair, Tommy’s adult persona began to take shape: he co-founded Bliss, a life-changing peer-to-peer tutoring program and spent hours tutoring fellow students in Math and English; made wonderful friends he lavished attention on; became Captain of the Forensics Club and a savagely logical and persuasive orator in the Debate and Extemporaneous Speech Club where he had to be constantly reminded by his teammates that the purpose of high school debate tournaments is to score points and not convince people of the truth or change the world. He was active in the Young Dems and recruited dozens to get involved in the 2012 Obama reelection effort. On Prom Night, he threw a dinner party for 24 fellow students, including classmates who had no date that evening, and they all went to prom together as a group. He hated cliques and social snobbery, never had a negative word for anyone but tyrants and despots, and opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — ‘forgive me, but it’s hard to be a human.’
“Above all, he began to follow his own piercing moral and intellectual insights looking for answers to problems of injustice, poverty and war. A Bar Mitzvah from Temple Sinai, he taught a Sunday School with Heather Levy for two years at Temple Emmanuel, often substituting his social-struggle analysis of the Exodus story for teachings on the Hebrew alphabet. He ordered and devoured books on the Civil War and Maryland’s history in it, World War II and resistance to Nazism, Jewish history, libertarianism, moral philosophy, the history of the Middle East conflict, peace movements, anything by Gar Alperovitz on the decision to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and anything by Peter Singer on animal rights. He began to pen these extraordinary essays and articles that now add up to well over 100 as well as write plays and extremely long polemical poems, which he eagerly performed for audiences astounded by his precocious moral vision, utter authenticity of emotion, and beauty of expression.
“At Amherst College, he majored in history, helped lead the Amherst Political Union, intellectually discredited the egregious Dinesh D’Souza who turned to pathetic insults when Tommy destroyed his argument from the audience with a simple question (even before D’Souza was soon to be convicted of federal campaign finance crimes), won the Kellogg Prize, created and performed one-act plays with his social dorm mates, and wrote a compelling senior thesis on the intellectual history of the animal rights movement. Spending his summers voraciously reading and soaking up all the wisdom to be had at his eclectic self-procured internships at the CATO Institute with Doug Bandow, J Street, the Institute for Policy Studies, ARC of Montgomery, Compassion Over Killing, and for Professor Frank Couvares, Tommy became an anti-war activist, a badass autodidact moral philosopher and progressive humanist libertarian, and a passionate vegan who composed imperishable, knock-your-socks-off poetry linking systematic animal cruelty and exploitation to militarism and war culture. He recruited gently and lovingly — but supremely effectively — dozens and dozens of people, including his parents, to the practice of not eating animals, and it will be hard to find anyone his age who has turned more carnivores into vegans than him. (He also cheerfully opposed sectarian holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness among a handful of vegans he met and would say, ‘I’m working for a vegan world, not a vegan club.’) A prolific and exquisitely gifted writer, he came to publish essays and op-eds in the Nation, the Goodmen Project, Anti-War.Com and other outlets. After his Amherst graduation, Tommy went to the Friends Committee on National Legislation to work on stopping the war in Yemen and on Middle East policy, and spent a year publishing more remarkable essays and articles (soon to be available to you) and launching a book of political philosophy offering a sweeping animal rights critique of Locke, Mill and classical liberal social contract theory.
“In 2019 Tommy went to Harvard Law School. He lived up in the attic of the home of Michael Anderson and Donene Williams, his Dad’s beloved law school roommates, and made more remarkable friends. He studied constitutional law with Noah Feldman, criminal law with Carole Steiker, and property with Bruce Mann (Elizabeth Warren’s husband); he loved the systematic thought and debate dynamics of law school but reported it to be like half an education because the moral philosophy component was somehow left out. Rather than read endless lists of long cases, why not have students read clear comprehensive statements of what the law is and then talk about what the law should be? So while zealously promoting his newfound favorite game — Boggle — to rescue his classmates and himself from the stress and anxiety of law school, he also pushed them to engage with social problems and found a strong affinity group in the Effective Altruists. He spent last summer working quite brilliantly as a summer associate at Mercy for Animals and found a knack for actual lawyering.
“This fall Tommy not only took a full complement of his second-year law classes, including Disability Law with Michael Stein which he loved, but, at the suggestion of his beloved Professor Steicker, became a Teaching Assistant with Professor Michael Sandel in his ‘Justice’ Course at Harvard. As a teacher, Tommy devoted great time to teaching his section of the class — working on his astonishing lectures and jokes, and meeting endlessly with his dozen students on Zoom, finding what was precious in their work and teasing it out. He loved his students and they loved him back. Not content with giving half of his teaching salary away to save people with malaria by purchasing mosquito nets with global charities, when the semester was over and after his grades were in and the student evaluations were complete, he made individual donations in each of his students’ names to Oxfam, GiveDirectly and other groups targeting global hunger. When I asked him why he did this, he quoted something that he loved which Father Daniel Berrigan said about Dorothy Day: ‘she lived as though the truth were true.’ Tommy said: ‘I wanted them to see that the truth is true.’
“We have barely been able to scratch the surface here, but you have a sense of our son. Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling radiant mind. He began to be tortured later in his 20s by a blindingly painful and merciless ‘disease called depression,’ as Tabitha put it on Facebook over the weekend, a kind of relentless torture in the brain for him, and despite very fine doctors and a loving family and friendship network of hundreds who adored him beyond words and whom he adored too, the pain became overwhelming and unyielding and unbearable at last for our dear boy, this young man of surpassing promise to our broken world.
“On the last hellish brutal day of that godawful miserable year of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of people all over the world died alone in bed in the darkness from an invisible killer disease ravaging their bodies and minds, we also lost our dear, dear, beloved son, Hannah and Tabitha’s beloved irreplaceable brother, a radiant light in this broken world.
“He left us this farewell note on New Year’s Eve day: ‘Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.’”
My brother, too, succumbed to his depression, exacerbated by years of illicit drug use. For some, the pain of living is too great of an assignment to complete, the earthly contract is broken. Their spirit, though, their love, absolutely remains. And their presence, their guidance and laughter, their knowing and their embrace, their whispers, are just on the other side of the veil. I still hear his laugh. I love you, Darrell Lee.
Suicide help line: 800-273-8255
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