My husband has a cold, which creates tremendous respiratory sound effects in the wee small hours, giving me lots of opportunity for uninterrupted night thoughts (though we’re both looking forward to the return of his good health and uninterrupted sleep). I find myself drawn again to the questions of compassion I wrote about last time. I guess I still believe that looking harder at this conundrum might shed some light: how to extend to distant sufferers the compassion we feel for those closest to us, how to draw forth justice and mercy?
Yesterday I made my first batch of strawberry jam this season, with beautiful red berries I bought at the farmer’s market. The BBC radio program “The World” was playing in the background. I listened closely when this story came on: Lisa Mullins interviewed Christopher Doucot, a member of the Hartford Catholic Workers, on the arrest and detention in Sudan of his friend Brad Clift, a photographer who recently traveled with him to the refugee camps of Darfur. Doucot repeatedly committed the illegal act of distributing food to refugees, and Clift documented this, getting himself arrested.
I admire and respect the Catholic Workers, founded by the great Dorothy Day, who famously said, ?The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?? They stand tall for their beliefs, often at great risk to themselves, and they don’t mince words.
Chris Doucot, given his fifteen minutes of media attention due to his friend’s arrest, expressed his frustration at how little has been done to end the suffering of Sudanese refugees, subjected to mass rapes and other atrocities, isolated in makeshift camps where their only shelter is cobbled together from twigs and refuse, and systematically starved — all of this a joint project of the Sudan government and the Janjaweed militias, who say they are putting down rebellion. Meanwhile, militia troops are burning the villages refugees left behind, so they have no homes to return to, even should they be saved.
“One American gets arrested and there’s all sorts of folks concerned and that’s good,” Doucot said, “but 400,000 have been killed and two million displaced. We should’ve been concerned years ago.” That’s a quote from a Hartford Catholic Worker press release. What I heard him say on “The World” is that in contrast to official paralysis in the face of so many Sudanese deaths and terrors, “One white American gets arrested” and the world takes notice. He pointed out the irony that yesterday was \Yom HaShoah,\ Holocaust Remembrance Day, the optimistic motto of which is “Never again” to genocide. Suddenly there I was, gripped by a terrible irony, up to my elbows in ruby-red berries, their fragrance filling the house, my eyes filling with tears at how right he was.
Like millions, I’ve signed petitions, written to my elected officials, given charity, and still, the nations of the world are more attuned to petty politics than to compassion. At the end of March, the UN finally referred the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC); with now-characteristic moral grandeur, the U.S. abstained. An international coalition has pledged $4.5 billion in aid, $1.7 billion to come from the United States. But you can’t eat pledges: UN aid and refugee agencies report they’ve received only a small percentage of even those funds appropriated so far. The UN’s Human Rights Commission — which should be even more committed to truth than the Security Council, which showed enough spine to refer the issue to the ICC — condemned the situation in general terms, without indicting the Sudanese government by name.
Most close observers feel that the Sudanese government and its Janjaweed troops are proceeding with impunity because they don’t believe the world will intervene. The most cynical (which is not to say inaccurate) point to the recent discovery of rich oilfields in the Darfur region as a reason various governments are “normalizing” relations with Khartoum. U.S. advocates for Sudanese refugees are outraged that Condoleezza Rice’s deputy, Robert Zoellick, met recently with Vice President Ali Osman Taha, after attending an International Donor?s Conference on Sudan in Oslo. At Zoellick’s press conference. He was asked if the U.S. believed genocide was still being committed in Darfur. His reply? “I don?t want to get into a debate over terminology.”
Salih Booker, president of Africa Action, said “First, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decides Darfur is not important enough for her to visit, and then her deputy goes to Khartoum, clearly displaying US willingness to cooperate with the government of Sudan at the expense of protecting the people of Darfur.”
So what is it that blocks compassion from action? My first thought is racism, that the Darfur victims are Africans. Surely that is part of the equation, but it can’t explain why so many countries of Africa took the lead in softening the language of the UN resolution to avoid outright condemnation of Khartoum. Perhaps it comes down to realpolitik, sacrificing lives today for oil tomorrow. Or maybe it’s about the new social neurosis pundits are citing, “compassion fatigue”?
Studying the Holocaust reveals a tremendous reservoir of individual human kindness and resilience in the face of unspeakable evil, tremendous bravery and self-sacrifice. But it doesn’t evoke great admiration for the decency of governments: we see refugee ships turned away from U.S. shores, immigrants denied entry, aid agencies indifferent or incredulous until it was too late, Allied troops refusing to bomb rail lines carrying cattle-cars to the camps because they wanted to preserve strategic capacity, avoiding destroying factories that until very late in the day had business relations with the U.S. and other allies — and so on and on.
For Holocaust Remembrance Day, NPR broadcast an interview in the form of a conversation between Martin Weiss, a concentration camp survivor, and Edgar Edelsack, an ex-GI who helped to liberate the camps. Edelsack had been in the Army 3 years when he and his comrades marched in Mauthausen. He was astounded at what he saw there, he told the interviewer, because, “We were never informed about it.” He is repeating what so many have testified, that 60 years ago — whether on account of misplaced skepticism, internalized antisemitism, or chronic indifferences — neither the media nor the government brought the truth of the camps to ordinary people until far too late.
But now we don’t have that excuse. We know both what happened 60 years ago in Europe and what is happening in Sudan today. What was true then is still true: governments will not take proportionate action to right even the most horrifying injustices unless we, the people, hold officials’ feet to the fire. In the end, my confusion and dismay about why world governments have not acted is irrelevant. The only thing is to get them to act now: fully fund relief, protect relief workers and supplies, sanction the Sudanese government and its allies, embargo arms and oil, bring the highest level of accountability to all world governments for their involvement in securing peace in Sudan.
There are many excellent organizations working on this issue. I commend you to the Web site for Save Darfur, with its comprehensive links (a site created by the wonderful April Greenberg at Springthistle Design, who also made my Web site). From there you can write to Congress urging passage of two important pieces of legislation allocating aid and condemning the atrocities as genocide; and can link to many other places to act and donate. If “Never again” has any meaning, surely this is it.