Two things were on my mind as I watched “Hotel Rwanda,” the stunning depiction of the 1994 Rwandan Tutsi extermination that was the fastest genocide in the history of the world.
The first was Hollywood and how I owed it an apology for the many times I railed against its degeneracy. A film this powerful shames the world out of its indifference to the slaughter of helpless humans and demonstrates the potential of movies to reach the places that photos and words cannot.
The second was Bill Clinton, the great ’60s liberal romantic who dreamed of becoming president in order to make the world a better place. How would he deal with his shame, for the movie is more damaging to his reputation than if Monica Lewinsky had handycamed the leader of the free world inserting foreign objects into her privates.
Though Clinton is never mentioned in the movie explicitly, he is the ghost that haunts the entire story – the most powerful man on earth – who not only refused to intervene to save 800,000 people from being hacked to death, but declined to even convene his Cabinet to discuss the crisis.
How would the great liberal hope now face his Nobel Prize-winning friend Toni Morrison who called him “America’s first black president”? Would he still be invited by Oprah Winfrey to talk about his $12 million autobiography once she focused on the fact that Clinton had even refused to provide jamming aircraft to block Hutu Power radio transmissions that orchestrated the massacres? The $8,500-per-hour cost to the United States was determined by the president’s administration be too exorbitant, even though, since 10,000 Rwandans were being killed each day, the cost came to $20 per life.
And would Bill Clinton still be a hero to a new generation of American youth once they found out that eight African nations, fed up with American inaction to stop the butchery, agreed to send in their own intervention force. All they asked from the United States was the use of 50 armored personnel carriers, but the Clinton administration refused to loan them and instead demanded $15 million, leaving the carriers on a runway in Germany while the United Nations scrambled to find the money. And while all this happened, an average of 334 poor black Africans were dying every hour.
The Rwandan genocide was unique in the annals of modern genocide insofar as the world has absolutely no excuse not to intervene. The Ottoman Turks’ slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians took place during the fog of the World War I. The same was true of the holocaust of 6 million European Jews, which gave Franklin Roosevelt the excuse that defeating the Germans was the best way to stop the carnage.
The Khmer Rouge’s extermination of one third of Cambodia’s 7 million citizens was done in a country that was utterly sealed off from the rest of the world, thus granting the Western powers plausible denial as to its occurrence. But with the Rwandan Genocide, the U.N. commander, Gen. Romeo Dallaire of Canada, one of the few true heroes of this otherwise cowardly tale, informed the world of both the Hutu preparations for mass-murder as well as every development once the genocide was in full swing.
The Clinton administration’s response constitutes one of the greatest abominations of American history. Not only did the United States refuse to intervene, but, to quote the New York Times, “it also used its considerable power to discourage other Western powers from intervening.”
The Clinton administration robbed Dallaire of any ability to protect the unarmed men, women and children by demanding a total withdrawal of all 2,500 U.N. peacekeepers, only later allowing a skeletal force of 270 because of the strong pressure of African nations. The administration adamance that the United Nations be withdrawn was taken as a clear signal by the Hutu Power militias that the West cared nothing for poor African lives.
From that time on, the fate of the Tutsis was sealed and the bodies of hundreds of thousands of children with their parents littered the country’s rivers and hills. The Clinton administration’s repellant response only got worse with the State Department then prohibiting the use of the word “genocide,” because that would have obligated the United States to intervene.
To be fair, I should add the addendum that Clinton did go to Rwanda in 1998 to apologize, albeit for three-and-a-half hours, his plane not even shutting down its engines while he spoke. True to form, he at least felt their pain.
Dec. 9, 2004, was the 56th anniversary of the approval of the Genocide Convention by the United Nations General Assembly. But with another genocide taking place in Sudan, and the United States refusing to even pass a resolution condemning it, it is clear that the world is still not ready to prevent entire groups being exterminated.
It is also clear that no country, not even the United States, can be trusted to prevent genocide. Even President Bush, the greatest champion of democracy since Winston Churchill, has thusfar done too little to help the wretched people of Darfur, where about 100,000 have already died.
Which leaves just you and me.
I believe that rather than merely blaming the amoral Bill Clintons of the world for being indifferent to genocide, decent people everywhere must take it upon themselves to coerce their governments into action whenever a genocide occurs. A mass movement of participants should go on strike for two days of every month – and carry out acts of civil disobedience – until the great democracies take action to stop whole groups from being exterminated.
I lament that I lack the global reach and influence to orchestrate this movement and coordinate its activities. But surely if enough people begin to adopt this measure, say on the 1st and 15th of every month, someone with global influence will emerge to inspire and orchestrate the campaign and we can shut down whole countries for two days out of every month until those governments act. We must send a clear message that there will be no business as usual while people are slaughtered en masse. Radical situations call for radical responses.
I recognize that controversy will ensue as to what constitutes a genocide. But rather than tangle over the definition, let’s begin with the Sudan, which the United States and other responsible governments have already labeled a genocide. Let us go on strike for two days out of every month until the Western democracies send troops into the Sudan to kill the Janjaweed militias, or carry out air strikes against the Sudanese government who are arming them.
I write these lines not from altruistic, but selfish motivation. I simply do not wish to ever experience the kind of shame that Bill Clinton is surely experiencing right now.