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Commentary: Stopping Genocide

By Walter Simpson

Buffalo, NY – In the Darfur area of Sudan, Arab militias called the Janjaweed, allied with the Sudanese government, have been carrying out indiscriminant attacks on Black Africans. Villages have been burned and destroyed, possessions looted, and thousands of innocent people have been systematically killed, raped and starved. An estimated 70,000 have already died and 1.2 million people have been displaced in what has politely been called "ethnic cleansing" or genocide. Another 350,000 people may die in the next nine months if the conflict continues.

The 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as acts intended to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Genocide is the ultimate hate crime. During the twentieth century, genocide and mass murder took more human lives than all wars combined.

While I try, I really can't understand the conditions, prejudice and hatred that produce genocide's mass violence and brutality. Can it really be that ordinary people commit genocidal acts? By what cosmic slight of hand were some of us born into a world of safety and privilege while others have to run for their lives? Why are crimes of genocide regularly ignored, unstopped, and unpunished?

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda haunts me. I imagine myself there with my family, running, hiding, fearing death by neighbors wielding machetes, desperately hoping and praying for help - help that would not come.

I am ashamed to say that I became aware of the Rwandan genocide months after it occurred, months after 6,000 to 10,000 people were killed each day for 100 days. If I had been paying attention, I could have done something. As completely skeptical as I am about the use of American military power, I would have gladly supported sending in the U.S. Marines.

Four years later, President Bill Clinton flew to Rwanda and apologized for U.S. inaction. But it was worse -- because the U.S. actually prevented the United Nations from intervening. If you ever saw it, you wouldn't forget the video footage of General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of U.N. peacekeepers in Rwanda, begging for more troops and permission to stop the killing, and being denied.

Even thinking about genocide is painful. How many Americans are ready to admit that our country was founded on crimes against humanity? Christopher Columbus "discovered" a continent that was already inhabited. The year 1492 marks the beginning of a European invasion and genocide against native peoples.

I can't give my parents generation enough credit for fighting World War 2 and defeating the Nazis but I am at a loss to explain President Roosevelt's 1938 refusal to allow the St. Louis, a passenger ship loaded with 900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, to land in Florida. Why the ambivalence, the indifference to saving people's lives?

Nixon and Kissinger's call for extensive aerial bombardment during the last few years of the Vietnam War destroyed much of Cambodia and produced conditions ripe for Pol Pot's rise to power -- leading to the 1975 to 1979 Cambodian genocide. Nearly two million people were executed in the "killing fields" or died of starvation or disease at the hands of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Not only did the U.S. make no effort to stop this genocide but we also supported Pol Pot because he was aligned with China and not with our arch Communist rival, the Soviet Union. It was a triumph of Cold War political insanity and a sad day for human rights when President Jimmy Carter supported United Nations' recognition of Pol Pot in 1978.

We're the "good guys" who somehow have lent comfort and support to the perpetrators of genocide. In 1975, our government backed Indonesia's oil-producing anti-communist government when it invaded East Timor, eventually killing between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians. And by now, we should all know the story of the Reagan Administration's support for Saddam Hussein as his troops committed genocide by gassing and executing tens of thousands of Kurds.

There is much the United States and international community can do to stop genocide. The first step, however, is mustering the outrage and political will. It should come as no surprise that the Bush Administration's declaration of genocide in Sudan has produced no meaningful action. One thing we all can do is raise our voices and make clear to our own government that sitting on the sidelines when genocide is being committed is no longer an option.

"Reality Check" with Commentator Walter Simpson is a monthly feature of WBFO News.