Never again, yet again

Unless action replaces delay, our denunciations of genocide are nothing but talk.

Darfur has become a marquee global tragedy with celebrities such as George Clooney and Don Cheadle gamely trying to draw public attention to the killing fields in western Sudan. Dispatches from the frontlines over the past four years document the mayhem that has become the daily landscape for the wretched survivors of Darfur, now enduring a precarious existence in poorly protected refugee camps.

Calls for action—most recently from President Bush as he applied renewed pressure on Khartoum—have been regular media events since the Darfur crisis began. Pressure mounts on the United States to do more. Angry voices demand that China repudiate its noxious partnership with Sudan, and petition sites and advocacy groups have sprung up across the Web.

Yet the killing continues, the abuse and rape of women and murder of children persists, and the dislocation of thousands goes on. By now more than 400,000 people have been slaughtered and more than 2.5 million driven from their homes.

What is happening in Darfur has been formally described as genocide, an event most civilized nations have committed themselves to allow never again to occur. Former United Nations head Kofi Annan argues that a force of perhaps 24,000 troops could save the people; still we remain bystanders.

Why so much rhetoric and so little action on Darfur? The war on terror is partly to blame. Early on in the crisis, U.S. officials didn’t want to press Sudanese authorities who were cooperating in the hunt for terror operatives even as they directed an unofficial scorched-earth policy in Darfur. Now with U.S. forces committed elsewhere, U.S. leadership has abandoned any notion of a more interventionist policy on Darfur, calculating that the American public has little stomach for yet another military campaign, even one intended to respond to the gravest crime against humanity.

Ironically the sheer enormity of the suffering may also be contributing to the lack of progress. Writing in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, Paul Slovic, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, argues that the superhuman scale of Darfur’s suffering generates a kind of empathy overload: “Not only do we fail to grasp the gravity of the statistics, but the numbers themselves may actually hinder the psychological processes required to prompt action.”

Meanwhile Beijing places political and economic self-interest above moral clarity on Darfur, keeping the Sudanese oil spigots open as it stiff-arms any international reviews of another nation’s “domestic affairs,” perhaps mindful of how such a precedent could invite a more thorough audit of its own campaigns against Buddhist and Muslim minorities.

The United Nations has been waiting for a formal invitation from the Sudanese to police the troubled region. This is sort of like waiting for the wolf’s OK to guard the sheep. (At press time Sudan agreed to the deployment of a United Nations-African Union peacekeeping force.) Darfur, in short, twists in the wind of a perfect storm of political impotence and moral lassitude. We do the agonizing; they do the dying.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, many of the world’s political leaders found themselves forced into public displays of atonement for our shameful lack of response.

“It may seem strange to you here,” President Clinton said in his own 1998 tarmac mea culpa in Kigali, “but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Surely that cannot be said today about Darfur (if it could be said about Rwanda). Surely we understand that the world, whether led by the United States or the United Nations, has the capacity and the moral responsibility to act now.

Solidarity is a precious gift and a heart-stopping challenge. We need to get past the numbers and look into the faces of this tragedy. We need to rediscover our common humanity and defend it. The world needs no more mea culpas. The people of Darfur cannot endure one more mea culpa; many of them may not be able to endure one more day.

Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the August 2007 (Volume 72, Number 8; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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