It’s 2007 and has been for several months now. At the touch of a button, Megan in Des Moines knows what the weather is like back home in Sydney. Mike in Los Angeles can check the status of his flight home to Nebraska using the Bluetooth device built into his sunglasses. Alice in Dallas gets lost and asks her car for directions back to the highway. Her car cheerfully complies with her request, and a moment later Alice is back on her way to visit her cousin in Houston. Somewhere in the Middle East, a war rages on, and most of what is known about it has been learned on 42-inch plasma televisions in high-definition and probably surround sound. The world is flat; we are an advanced, artistic and educated society, capable of unlimited accomplishment, growth and gain. Three hundred years of development have left us sophisticated, intelligent, superior to all that came before us. It is good to be an American in 2007.
And yet, in spite of our obvious greatness, we have never been known for our compassion for others. Often, we are known for the opposite. Time and again America has been the indifferent bystander, neglecting our moral obligation to act on behalf of those in need, electing instead to watch tragedies unfold and take place. Turkey was of no concern to the west. Adolf Hitler took note of this fact, justifying the “final solution to the Jewish question” by asking his own very simple question: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” His point was well taken. We ignored the advice that might have saved millions during World War II, refusing to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz for fear of political ramifications. We casually observed the atrocities in Bosnia, acting only when it was too late to save hundreds of thousands of lives, and again, two years later in Rwanda, we sent in our troops, removed only our citizens, and watched a million Tutsi human beings hacked to death with machetes on the nightly news. Of course, all of this is perhaps a little less surprising when considering that this very country was founded on the genocide of the American Indians. The systematic and deliberate extermination of those who first inhabited this incredible land some say has never ended. And yet, for all this ugliness, it took place long ago, or else in distant, foreign lands. Perhaps such things have happened, but it has been hundreds of years, or else, such things have happened recently, but far, far away from this great country of ours. Such things could never happen here.
Where within humanity is the proximity indicator—the internal mechanism that gives us the audacity to ignore genocides and other such atrocities against mankind, so long as they are taking place nowhere near to us? C.S. Lewis wrote about the “Moral Law” that lives within each of us and guides our right actions according to something very great that is beyond our control. Last week, President Bush, whether you are part of the 28 percent of Americans who still approve of him or not, took a step toward proving that perhaps the Moral Law is still greater than the proximity indicator. Last week, President Bush took the first step towards ending the genocide in Darfur; he acknowledged it.
“For too long, the people of Darfur have suffered at the hands of a government that is complicit in the bombing, murder and rape of innocent civilians,” stated President Bush, in a press conference on Darfur. The previous generation may recall President Clinton making similar statements about the tragedy in Bosnia and later in Rwanda. And any generation may realize that, in spite of such statements, the necessary measures were not taken to save lives. And yet all past mistakes aside, we have been granted another chance to deviate from our pattern of turning our backs on those in need.
Bush stated in his speech that the U.S. has donated already nearly $1.7 billion to assist in Darfur, most likely dating back to 2003. That amount, while significant in and of itself, is considerably less than is spent on the Iraq war over any given two-week period. But this is not about Iraq, nor is it strictly a monetary consideration. In spite of the complexity of the conflict, the real issue in Darfur is more basic, more human than the American political system has a place for. Darfur is about awareness being raised, and about action being taken on behalf of those in need. As Lewis pointed out, a person who gives a bit of an orange one day will undoubtedly expect to be receiving either another bit of orange or something of equal or perhaps even greater value on the next day. One of the great problems with Sudan from the American perspective is that, with their great petroleum resources tied up by China, a country that has proven itself indifferent to the plight of those in Darfur, we have a difficult time envisioning what Darfur might offer us in return for our assistance. The truth of the matter is, the Darfurians may very well never return our bit of orange. What we have to realize is that, minus that life-saving piece of fruit, we are in no danger ourselves of ever going hungry. Darfur, in a sense, is the “least of these” that Jesus spoke of in the Gospels (Matthew 25:40). We must not view Darfur as a place to gain for ourselves, but as an opportunity to be of much-needed assistance to a suffering people. Our reward may never come on earth, but the consequences of our not deserving it will be truly grave for each and every last indifferent bystander who allows, for the ump-teenth time, another genocide to run its course. As the prophetic Dante wrote to us, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
It is still 2007. Since you sat down at your computer, a device capable of providing you with everything from communication with your family overseas to ordering a pastrami on rye for lunch, another village has been razed to the ground in Darfur, its inhabitants forced to flee their home and settle in inadequate refugee camps, where they may very well starve to death, if they are not first murdered along the way by Bashir’s Janjaweed militia. A woman, if not several women, have been raped almost to death, perhaps entirely, their children left defenseless and orphaned in a war-torn land. It doesn’t have to be this way; it shouldn’t be this way.
Quoth President Bush in his speech last week: “The people of Darfur are crying out for help, and they deserve it.” Bush promises to urge forward and reinforce the United Nations and the African Union in their mission to provide peace-keepers in Darfur. “The United States will not avert our eyes from a crisis that challenges the conscience of the world,” said President Bush.
But the strength of this statement rests not in the man who made it, but in the people he represents. President Bush will be gone soon, and with him go his promises. It is up to the United States, and every person who is a part of it, to put in office a person who will uphold these promises, and to uphold them ourselves. Empty murmurings of “Never again” still echo across much of Europe, across Africa, across any land that has been ravaged by genocide since the end of World War II. It is up to America to see that this time our President’s promises are not empty; that this time, “never” means “never” and that this crisis in Darfur, which indeed challenges our conscience, ends before we rest again. It may have been President Bush’s promise, but it is our responsibility as members of the human race to find an end to the genocide in Darfur.