Jewish World Review April 9, 2004 /19 Nissan 5764
As much as our American presidents say "Never again" with heartfelt passion, the reality too often has been, "Yes, again," to mass killings
The two men were neighbors and good buddies. They often got together, told jokes and shared that great international adhesive of male bonding, beer.
That was before a mob insisted that one friend club the other to death.
It happened in Rwanda 10 years ago, a time and place where tribalism ran horribly amok. The victim had done nothing wrong except to belong to the wrong ethnic group. As reported by Los Angeles Times correspondent Robyn Dixon, the confessed killer now rationalizes the death as the mob's fault: "Those people are to blame," he says. "Not me."
There are millions of sad stories in Rwanda. His is one of them. "Those people" are his people. Hutus turned on Rwanda's Tutsi minority on the night of April 6, 1994, after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi was shot down. Bands of Hutu thugs, working mostly with machetes and astonishingly relentless enthusiasm, killed almost 1 million men, women and children and turned another 2 million into refugees, all for the crime of being Tutsis.
The horrible enormity of those numbers numbs the mind. A single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, said Josef Stalin--who knew more than a little about how to stun the world into shocked disbelief through the sheer enormity of his own mass killings.
Memories of Rwandan horror pain an idealistic world, a modern civilization that embraced the slogan "Never again." After the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed a half-century ago, one American president after another has pledged never to let such a massive murder of civilians happen again. Yet, they do. Cambodia's killing fields in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein's attacks in northern Iraq in the 1980s, Bosnia's "ethnic cleansing" by Serbs in 1990s and Rwanda's horrors all proceeded without American action.
In Cambodia, Iraq and Rwanda, the United States did not even rush to offer stern words or impose sanctions. In Rwanda, the Clinton administration not only refused to authorize the deployment of a multinational UN force, but actually fussed with other nations over who would pay for American transport vehicles.
Yet, as former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said in a December speech he delivered at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial site in Rwanda, "The lesson of each genocide is the same: The killing really takes off only after the murderers see that the world, and especially the United States, is not going to care or react."
Indeed, the slaughter in Rwanda of 10 UN peacekeepers from Belgium resulted in the UN Security Council's decision to pull the peacekeeping force out, despite the UN commander's impassioned request for reinforcements. When no response came after 100,000 people were killed in two weeks, the slaughter picked up its pace. It took Tutsi rebels, not the mighty UN, to put an end to the massacre by overthrowing the Hutu leaders.
President Bill Clinton expressed deep regret later. "I feel terrible," he said during one public appearance, "because I think we could have sent [5,000] or 10,000 troops and saved a couple hundred thousand lives. I think we could have saved about half of them."
So why didn't we? Clinton administration officials blame several factors, including the "Somalia syndrome." Congress and the Clinton administration were reluctant to send U.S. troops into more humanitarian missions after the disastrous retreat from Mogadishu.
Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander whose call for reinforcements went unheeded, was more blunt in an appearance in Rwanda's capital Kigali this week: "The international community didn't give one damn for Rwandans because Rwanda was a country of no strategic importance."
Right. Had there been oil or something else of "strategic importance" under Rwanda, the world might have responded with a greater urgency. Yet the American people are not cold-hearted. A CBS/New York Times poll in 1995, for example, found two-thirds of the Americans polled thought "stopping the killing" was reason enough to deploy troops to Bosnia, while only 29 percent agreed with Clinton that deployment was necessary to maintain a stable Europe and preserve American leadership. Americans want to do the right thing. But they need leadership to help them do it.
Leaders tend to be reluctant to make the humanitarian "Never again" argument, even when it is perfectly justified. President Bush's White House, for example, fell back on the humanitarian motive for invading Iraq ("The Iraqi people are better off with Saddam [Hussein] is out of power") only after our searchers failed to find Hussein's fabled weapons of mass destruction.
As much as our American presidents say "Never again" with heartfelt passion, the reality too often has been, "Yes, again," when our nation's moral courage somehow gets lost in day-after-day of polite conversations between diplomats, followed by no action. It is not surprising that the U.S. is reluctant to send troops to faraway adventures. But if we forget the lessons of Rwanda, we will be doomed to repeat them.
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