Oops, we did it again

Genocide. Global warming. Nuclear proliferation. Sex trafficking in Cambodia. Famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that problems like these tend to sort themselves out if we just ignore them for long enough. So I get annoyed when guys like Nicholas Kristof keep reminding people about them, thereby diverting attention from real issues like steroid abuse in the NFL.

In his latest piece of “offbeat” journalism, Kristof pulls out the stops, explicitly comparing humankind’s current failure to prevent the Darfur genocide with its failure to prevent earlier genocides:

During the Holocaust, the world looked the other way. Allied leaders turned down repeated pleas to bomb the Nazi extermination camps or the rail lines leading to them, and the slaughter attracted little attention. My newspaper, The New York Times, provided meticulous coverage of World War II, but of 24,000 front-page stories published in that period only six referred on page one directly to the Nazi assault on the Jewish population of Europe. Only afterward did many people mourn the death of Anne Frank, construct Holocaust museums, and vow: Never Again.

The same paralysis occurred as Rwandans were being slaughtered in 1994. Officials from Europe to the US to the UN headquarters all responded by temporizing and then, at most, by holding meetings. The only thing President Clinton did for Rwandan genocide victims was issue a magnificent apology after they were dead.

Much the same has been true of the Western response to the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, and the Bosnian massacres of the 1990s. In each case, we have wrung our hands afterward and offered the lame excuse that it all happened too fast, or that we didn’t fully comprehend the carnage when it was still under way.

And now — let me guess — the same is happening in Darfur. Arab Janjaweed militias, supported by the Sudanese government, are systemically massacring, raping, and mutilating non-Arab civilians, while the world watches on in horror but does nothing. Dude, what a shocker. I never could have predicted that one.

Think about it. Sixty years after Auschwitz, obviously the world must have solved this genocide thing. The US, or EU, or UN, or someone must have set up some sort of special army that, you know, goes in and stops it before it happens. I mean, anything else would be criminally insane! It would be like 911 putting people on hold for an hour, or a hospital telling a guy spewing arterial blood to sit in the waiting room and read a magazine. Right?

Even if not, I’ve just spent over 20 minutes of valuable procrastination time writing this post and sending some money. So regardless of what happens in Darfur, you can’t accuse me of having sat in my chair and done nothing. No, I sat in my chair and did something.

23 Responses to “Oops, we did it again”

  1. aram harrow Says:

    That’s great that you’re drawing attention to this!

    I would urge your readers, though, to beware of Kristof’s simplifications. For example, the Arab/African distinction isn’t particularly valid, and arguably isn’t a useful organizing principle, since it implies more permanent differences than really exist. My favorite author on the subject is Alex de Waal (who wrote one of the reviewed books).

    Also, I should point out that the response of the West is not always nothing; sometimes it’s worse than nothing! In Rwanda, French troops trained, armed and probably protected the genocidal Hutu government. Then U.N. refugee camps became staging grounds for fleeing rebels that eventually sparked the largest war in the history of Africa, killing 3-4 million in the former Zaire. I’m in the middle of a great book called Reimagining Rwanda, which talks in part about how Western guilt about the Rwandan genocide caused many Western countries to accept, or even support, the Kagame government’s 1995-6 attacks on these refugee camps. It’s kind of a long story, but the basic theme is that there’s not just a 1-d spectrum between inaction and positive action.

    Of course, we’re still scandalously off the charts in the inaction direction!

    Oh, and one more book recommendation that’s vaguely critical of Western humanitarian involvement: In the shadow of ‘just wars’ : violence, politics and humanitarian action. In particular, it has a fascinating chapter on how U.N. aid to Southern Sudan in the 80′s helped prolong the conflict, largely because of the American strategic/economic priorities that shaped this aid. A pretty amazing read, AND written by MSF, one of my all-time favorite organizations.

  2. Scott Says:

    Aram: Thanks for clarifying! Kristof did talk about the Arab/African distinction being only approximate.

    In general, I think one ought to be careful about portraying genocides as “complicated,” since so many people are eager to latch onto complexity as an excuse to do nothing. For example, Churchill and Roosevelt apparently considered bombing Auschwitz, but rejected the idea on the grounds that, who knows, maybe it would do more harm than good. (It would have done plenty of good.)

  3. Anonymous Says:

    For those interested in learning about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch’s book “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families” is quite interesting. I believe the recent “Hotel Rwanda” movie was loosely based on this, but the book is much more informative (of course).

    It really portrays the genocide as being simple in the beginning, but becoming more complex and difficult to deal with as a consequence of the west ignoring it for so long.

    derek

  4. aram harrow Says:

    On the other hand, over-simplifying African wars (especially by casting them in racial terms) can make people fatalistic about their potential for resolution.

    Plus, the question of where to give your aid money is I think really hard. I did a Darfur fundraiser in spring 2004 and gave the money to the WFP, not fully knowing their history in southern Sudan, but if I did it again, I think I’d do MSF.

    So I think debate is important, and could in principle draw attention to the issue, and to constructive solutions.

  5. Osias Says:

    The day I got superpowers I’ll go there and stop the war. No, ALL the wars.

    I’m seriuos. I would like to!

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Aram,

    what is WFP? If it is World Food Program, what is their history in Sudan?

  7. Anonymous Says:

    A lot of times, the international community, especially the US, can do well by not interfering at all. Historically, the US has a nag for supporting the wrong guys and punishing the victims further.

  8. Scott Says:

    I think that usually, if someone is smart enough not to get involved in a conflict because he might inadvertently pick the wrong side, then that person is also smart enough to pick the right side. :-)

  9. Miss HT Psych Says:

    I’d have to agree with the last anonymous commenter. The US, historically, has at the very least implicitly supported some of these atrocities. I mean, during WWII, the US was actually fairly sympathetic to what was happening in Germany… they were even following some of the same political paths that led to that point. They also neglected to punish many of the scientists who conducted horrendous research because they were actually eager for these scientists to continue their work.

    And, to be honest I’m not sure where I stand on the “World Police” issue. Genocide is horrible and disgusting, but does bombing civilians make the situation any better? If it did, we all would have learned from previous examples. We’re just killing (in mass quantities) those that are killing others in mass quantities… the action is the same, but the “moral” reasoning seperates us. The issue is how to make people understand what they’re doing is wrong? How can we make sure it doesn’t happen again? Because if we can take anything from the past its that military action doesn’t close the issue. It can even make it worse. The rationale behind genocide is much deeper than a simple bombing can fix.

  10. Scott Says:

    “We’re just killing (in mass quantities) those that are killing others in mass quantities… the action is the same, but the ‘moral’ reasoning seperates us. The issue is how to make people understand what they’re doing is wrong?”

    It will take a while, Miss HT, but I am going to save you from woo-woo philosophy. :-) You will be the test case who proves it’s possible.

    But first, let’s figure out how far the wooification has progressed.

    (1) Could Hitler have been made to understand that his actions were wrong?

    (2) Was WWII justified?

  11. secret milkshake Says:

    The answers:

    1) H. disliked animal cruelty and stopped eating meat altogether. So he did change his mind – and perhaps there was some animal rights activist involved. He also disliked chemical warfare after getting some mustard gas into his eyes. But you are right, firmness is the most reliable approach when dealing with homicidal lunatics.

    2) Germans though so and that is why they started the war – together with Russians, Italians and Japs. The other nations did not have much say about whether they wanted to join in. (They did not).

    There were doubts on Allied part about some particular methods used – if you read decent thinking people like Orwell or Dyson, you would notice their disgust about civilian reprisals and saturation bombing. (The episode about Stimson preventing Kjoto nuking is also revealing). It matters how you fight, not only what for.

  12. aram harrow Says:

    anonymous: Yes, WFP=World Food Program. Visit this article and search for “Lifeline Sudan” or better, see the “Sudan” chapter of In the shadow of ‘just wars’, for some criticism of their operations in Southern Sudan.

    Scott: WWII was justified, then and now, but the justifications now include genocide and at the time they didn’t.

  13. Scott Says:

    “WWII was justified, then and now, but the justifications now include genocide and at the time they didn’t.”

    That’s true. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that international Jewry was a parasite on the nations, seeking the funeral wreath of humanity for its crown, but who would have thought him capable of genocide? You would’ve had to be psychic or something.

    (From the 1935 Onion: “Jews Concerned About Hitler’s ‘Kill All Jews’ Proposal.”)

  14. Scott Says:

    Milkshake: “Was WWII justified?” is shorthand for “Was the war waged by the Allies justified?” I didn’t think there’d be much risk of confusion. :)

  15. secret milkshake Says:

    this confusion reminds me a joke about a boy in the history class mentioning that his grandpa died in the camp. And they ask: “Oh, he was a resistance hero?”
    And the boy says “He was sent there because he was drinking a lot and one day he felt down from the guard’s tower…”

  16. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Scott – Don’t get me wrong… personally I think WWII was DEFINITELY justified. I agree that what was happening there needed to be stopped and that was the only kind of international response that Hitler would have paid any heed to. On a more personal note, if the Americans and Russians hadn’t eventually stumbled across the death/work camps, then my grandparents wouldn’t have survived the war. So I’m with you on that, 100%.

    My question was, and still is: in principle, is responding in like kind a morally responsible thing to do? There’s no “woo-woo” philosophy about this… the question is still a hot topic of debate in political science. Does one country have the right to police another? The case of Nazi Germany is fairly clear cut. But what do you do about the US, for example, who has been more or less constantly bombing in Iraq since the 1990s? Does that qualify as genocide? Personally, I kinda think it does. It’s a question of where do you draw the line. I don’t think the people that are engaging in genocide can be taught that their actions are wrong. But that doesn’t mean I can agree to killing them either. There must be an answer to this problem, and one that doesn’t involve one country bombing the hell out of anyone THEY feel is in the wrong. Sure we have the UN. But the UN has rarely been able to stand up to the US when they really want to do something…

  17. aram harrow Says:

    I meant that during WWII, the Allies didn’t give a shit about the Holocaust. At one point, the advancing Soviet army even paused to let the Nazis finish massacring some Jews in Poland.

    Stopping genocide was a nice side-effect, but was nobody’s plan at the time.

    That’s why I’m nervous when ‘crimes against humanity’ justify wars–e.g. the recent war in Iraq. At the same time, I think more troops in Darfur (kind of like what Kristof advocates) would be a good idea; the only risk is that it would be done in a way (like Kosovo in 1999, or Afghanistan in 2001) that prioritizes things like preventing American deaths over things like reconstruction and protecting local populations.

  18. Scott Says:

    “I meant that during WWII, the Allies didn’t give a shit about the Holocaust.”

    Agreed.

    “Oh, shit … it’s not just the Jews he’s after? This guy wants to rule the entire world?!”

  19. Scott Says:

    Miss HT: Good! So we agree that military action can be justified, and that not all evildoers can be taught the error of their ways. As you say, “it’s a question of where do you draw the line.”

    A couple responses:

    “But what do you do about the US, for example, who has been more or less constantly bombing in Iraq since the 1990s? Does that qualify as genocide? Personally, I kinda think it does.”

    Many thoughtful people say that the war in Iraq is wasteful, immoral, and idiotic. It’s not the deliberate destruction of an entire race or cultural group.

    “I don’t think the people that are engaging in genocide can be taught that their actions are wrong. But that doesn’t mean I can agree to killing them either.”

    I agree that rubber bullets and tranquilizer darts are preferable when possible.

  20. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Scott – I’ll acknowledge right now that I’m far too tired to think through any propositions fully, so I’ll just let it be, say “you win”, and go to bed (yes, at 8pm… I’m THAT exhausted).

    “I agree that rubber bullets and tranquilizer darts are preferable when possible.”

    Now that’s my kind of war… sleep = good… :)

  21. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Aram – “At one point, the advancing Soviet army even paused to let the Nazis finish massacring some Jews in Poland.”

    That’s debatable. Officially their supply lines were being cut off and they were sustaining huge losses to their army… but I don’t doubt that was some of the motivation, and their halt in progress cost thousands of lives.

  22. Scott Says:

    Miss HT: “yes, at 8pm… I’m THAT exhausted”

    Yeah, I’ve been getting tired at strange times too. Let’s agree to make z’s, not war, as long as such is feasible.

  23. secret milkshake Says:

    Making a war is not a big deal, if one ends up on the right side of the history. It all boils down to good planing – any militarist can tell you that peace and stability are essential for thorough war preparations.