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February 07, 2005

Indifference on Mass Murder

How did people sit back in Germany and around the world and allow the Holocaust to happen? The answer has been answered repeatedly as people have indifferently sat back and watched mass murder occur again and again.

The movie: But Rwanda seems a special case-- a country where UN peacekeepers were on the ground as the murders started, yet they were ordered to pull out and do nothing. Watching Hotel Rwanda this weekend, it reminded me of how hollow conservative worries about tyranny in Iraq is given the indifference of so many people to mass murder when geopolitical goals don't support military action. A quick nexus search find no cries for intervention by the Iraq war usual suspects -- people like Bill Kristol or Richard Perle.

But then, as the movie argues, this was a crisis bred by colonialism and Western gamesmanship, where people were arbitrarily labelled Hutu of Tsusi by colonial authorities and pitted against each other to make colonial administration easier. But then, this is hardly different from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where his tyranny was militarily supported by the West - including the United States - when it was engaged in bloody war with Iran in the 1990s.

When tyranny is useful for the United States (see Pakistan and Egypt today), conservatives see no need for intervention to promote liberty and when mass murder comes to the lives of marginal countries like Rwanda, the answer is, Who cares? Only when the US can gain geopolitical advantage or control key resources like oil in Iraq does "freedom" matter.

Unlike some on the antiwar left, I fully supported intervention in Haiti and Kosovo in the 1990s to stop mass killings in those countries and restore democratic institutions. It is a blot on Bill Clinton's Presidency that he did nothing in Rwanda, but the lessons from that failure helped build the support for acting when the crisis in Kosovo came.

So what about Afganistan and Iraq? It would seem to follow that I would support intervention in Afganistan and Iraq on the same principle, which in the right situation, I very well might have.

But the point is not intervention mindlessly regardless of loss of life but rather we need to act when not acting poses an immediate threat of mass death for victims of the regime. In neither Afganistan nor Iraq was there an immediate crisis. The results of intervention in Afganistan have in the end been far better than expected, given the relative loss of life involved, but Iraq -- whatever the cheers from the last election -- has had to suffer tens of thousands of civilian deaths and continues to be plunged into chaotic civil war that is a direct product of the US intervention. US intervention and its manipulation of electoral choices by the Iraqi people smacks more of the occupation and colonialism that bred the divisions that led to the slaughter in Rwanda.

Moral Poverty of the Antiwar Left: But if I don't trust the cynicism of the rightwing talking about freedom as they send military aid to our dictator allies around the world, I continue to despair that this hypocrisy is made easier by the fact that so much of the antiwar left lacks a compelling humanitarian alternative. The antiwar left can rightly blame the United States for actions around the world that breed tyranny and help terrorists gain support around the world. But doing nothing and settling for a one-size-fits-all message of "no intervention" is so morally blind that it helps drive moderates into the hands of the neoconservatves when the choice is between cynical intervention versus doing nothing.

If the sane antiwar left is too tired or divided to promote a coherent alternative policy for international justice, the sad fact is that you still see kneejerk defenders of idiots like Ward Churchill. Marc Cooper has been excorciating some fellow leftists for even trying to defend a guy who referred to stockbrokers in the World Trade Center as "little Eichmanns." Even if the general point of US culpability for breeding despair and support for terrorism around the world is true, the chain of causation is complicated enough that justifying mass murder by labelling the victims of mass murder as Nazi-like functionaries is insanely reductionist and callous. There is an indifference to the suffering of those 911 victims in such phrasing that is telling. If I criticize the rightwing for lack of compassion for the victims of US aggression and indifference, it is just as bad for sectors of the far left to lack compassion for victims seen as somehow, abstractly "collaborators" with imperialism.

Indifference to death is the disease of our age, as we become inurred to millions dying in Holocausts and genocides, from AIDS and poverty, and in endless global wars in nations around the world. Those who are indifferent to such death -- whether censoring Iraqi civilian deaths from the news or sitting back as Rwandans were murdered -- breed the resentment that feeds the next round of violence.

Posted by Nathan at February 7, 2005 06:58 AM