by Nicholas D. Kristof
When Turkey was massacring Armenians in 1915, the administration of Woodrow Wilson determinedly looked the other way. The U.S. ambassador in Constantinople sent furious cables to Washington, pleading for action against what he called "race murder," but the White House shrugged.
It was, after all, a messy situation, and there was no easy way to stop the killing. The U.S. was desperate to stay out of World War I and reluctant to poison relations with Turkey.
A generation later, American officials said they were too busy fighting a war to worry about Nazi death camps. In May 1943, the U.S. government rejected suggestions that it bomb Auschwitz, saying that aircraft weren't available.
In the 1970's, the U.S. didn't try to stop the Cambodian genocide. It was a murky situation in a hostile country, and there was no perfect solution. The U.S. was also negotiating the establishment of relations with China, the major backer of the Khmer Rouge, and didn't want to upset that process.
Much the same happened in Bosnia and Rwanda. As Samantha Power chronicles in her superb book, "A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," the pattern was repeated over and over: a slaughter unfolded in a distant part of the world, but we had other priorities and it was always simplest for the American government to look away.
Now President Bush is writing a new chapter in that history.
Sudan's army and janjaweed militias have spent the last couple of years rampaging in the Darfur region, killing boys and men, gang-raping and then mutilating women, throwing bodies in wells to poison the water and heaving children onto bonfires. Just over a week ago, 350 assailants launched what the U.N. called a "savage" attack on the village of Khor Abeche, "killing, burning and destroying everything in their paths." Once again, there's no good solution. So we've looked away as 300,000 people have been killed in Darfur, with another 10,000 dying every month.
Since I'm of Armenian origin, I've been invited to participate in various 90th-anniversary memorials of the Armenian genocide. But we Armenian-Americans are completely missing the lesson of that genocide if we devote our energies to honoring the dead, instead of trying to save those being killed in Darfur.
Meanwhile, President Bush seems paralyzed in the face of the slaughter. He has done a fine job of providing humanitarian relief, but he has refused to confront Sudan forcefully or raise the issue himself before the world. Incredibly, Mr. Bush managed to get through recent meetings with Vladimir Putin, Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair and the entire NATO leadership without any public mention of Darfur.
There's no perfect solution, but there are steps we can take. Mr. Bush could impose a no-fly zone, provide logistical support to a larger African or U.N. force, send Condoleezza Rice to Darfur to show that it's a priority, consult with Egypt and other allies - and above all speak out forcefully.
One lesson of history is that moral force counts. Sudan has curtailed the rapes and murders whenever international attention increased.
Mr. Bush hasn't even taken a position on the Darfur Accountability Act and other bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senators Jon Corzine and Sam Brownback to put pressure on Sudan. Does Mr. Bush really want to preserve his neutrality on genocide?
Indeed, MTV is raising the issue more openly and powerfully than our White House. (Its mtvU channel is also covering Darfur more aggressively than most TV networks.) It should be a national embarrassment that MTV is more outspoken about genocide than our president.
If the Bush administration has been quiet on Darfur, other countries have been even more passive. Europe, aside from Britain, has been blind. Islamic Relief, the aid group, has done a wonderful job in Darfur, but in general the world's Muslims should be mortified that they haven't helped the Muslim victims in Darfur nearly as much as American Jews have. And China, while screaming about Japanese atrocities 70 years ago, is underwriting Sudan's atrocities in 2005.
On each of my three visits to Darfur, the dispossessed victims showed me immense kindness, guiding me to safe places and offering me water when I was hot and exhausted. They had lost their homes and often their children, and they seemed to have nothing - yet in their compassion to me they showed that they had retained their humanity. So it appalls me that we who have everything can't muster the simple humanity to try to save their lives.
The New York Times
Posted April 17, 2005