A few months after the genocide in Rwanda, I was visiting that country's capital city, Kigali, and bumped into a British reporter who'd been there during the bloodletting. "When the killing started," he told me, "I thought somebody was certain to intervene. The world wouldn't let something like this happen." He gave a phlegmy laugh. "I can't believe I was so naive."
His words kept coming back to me as I watched the lavish coverage that greeted the 10th anniversary of that ghastly slaughter. PBS ran the superb documentary Ghosts of Rwanda. United Artists released Hotel Rwanda, featuring Don Cheadle's wrenching performance as hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina. Over in Utah, the Sundance audience voted its World Cinema Documentary award to Shake Hands With the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire, about the U.N. commander who remains haunted by his inability to stop the murder of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan innocents. All of these are tales of genuine pain and heroism, and I can't blame anyone for being moved by them any more than I would fault someone for leaving Shoah or Schindler's List and vowing, "Never again."
If only. Even as the media recall our failure to act in Rwanda, there's another mass murder going on in Darfur, Sudan. Putting his life where his art is, the admirable Cheadle last week did a Nightline segment from Sudan, which reminded viewers of the cruel facts of this new genocide (against so-called ethnic Africans): 70,000 civilians killed so far, 2 million chased from their homes. And talk about the compulsion to repeat, the developed countries are once again dithering. Predictably so. After all, the people of Darfur have the ill fortune to suffer from that most invisible of afflictions — dying
For many of us on the left, it would be a pleasure to pin the world's inaction on President Bush, as Bill Clinton bears responsibility for the Rwandan disgrace (for which he belatedly apologized). But according to Harvard's Samantha Power, the go-to authority on genocide, things are trickier than that. Compared to other developed countries — especially scoffing France and Russia — the Bush administration has been quite attentive to Darfur. Goaded by the Christian right, it gave that country nearly $200 million in relief, dispatched Colin Powell to the scene and pushed other nations to condemn the Sudanese leadership in Khartoum. That is, it showed concern for innocent victims in a country that the West clearly doesn't give a damn about.
Still, when you consider the effort going into Iraq's extreme makeover, it's obvious that the administration should be doing much, much more — and the left should be pushing it to do so. Over the last few months, President Bush has been lecturing audiences about how freedom is on the march — it's one set of reps he never tires of doing. I wonder how his words would sound in Darfur, where people deprived of the most fundamental of freedoms — the freedom not to be murdered in their homes — keep waiting for the U.S. to come to the rescue. One fears they will hope in vain. If the last hundred years have taught us anything, it's that the world will not step in to protect the innocent, but once they are terminated, it will weep at the movie made about the tragedy and insist that such a lapse in moral courage will never again be repeated.