Thursday, April 13, 2006

All That is Necessary . . . Is That Good People Do Nothing

I recently saw the movie Hotel Rwanda. Like the HBO movie Sometimes In April, Hotel Rwanda was a narrative of events that took place during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Like many other people, I read and saw press reports while the Rwandan genocide was taking place; some time later I also saw Triumph of Evil, a PBS Frontline documentary that recapitulated these events in the context of recent history. However, the personal perspective brought forth by the two dramatic productions of which I speak above made the Rwandan genocide seem much more realistic to me than factual accounts had ever done.

As a general rule, I am loathe to redirect the focus of larger social issues to my personal perspective, hoping to do the exact opposite instead. However, I beg the indulgence of my audience on this particular occasion because I think that my personal perspective on genocide is shared by a great many people who do not take the time to articulate it. My hope is that my personal perspective can and will flesh out the larger issue of genocide and make what happened in Rwanda more than just a story to be told.

The Rwandan genocide was not the first genocide of the 20th Century, nor was it the last. I know this because I have close friends whose relatives were killed in some of the many genocides that took place during the last 100 years or so. This personal knowledge compelled me to investigate genocide as a historical phenomenon, and -- as I suspected -- I found that genocide is nothing new, nor is it likely to go away anytime soon. In fact, genocide goes back at least as far as recorded human history, and a genocide not unlike the Rwandan genocide is taking place right now in Darfur, albeit on a much smaller scale and at a much slower pace.

While I have no close personal friends whose relatives were killed in the Rwandan genocide, that particular genocide seems noteworthy to me because many people in positions of power knew that it was taking place, and they could have stopped the killing. Instead, they deliberately avoided getting involved, later professing (quite insincerely) that they were unaware of how grave the situation was. In and of itself, this failure of people in positions of power to act is noteworthy. Even more noteworthy is the fact that these decisions to avoid getting involved allowed the untimely death of some one million innocent people to occur in a time frame that was much faster than any other genocide that has ever been recorded in human history.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Edmund Burke, asserts, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [sic] do nothing." Nowhere is this assertion more apropos than when it comes to genocide. And yet, other than the handful of decision-makers who are in a position to do something, what can good people do when confronted with a genocide in progress? This point was driven home by the dramas referenced above. To wit, the protagonists were good men and women who did their best to stop acts of genocide in Rwanda, but in most instances they were just as helpless and/or just as dead as the victims that they wanted to help and/or tried to help.

Ethical choices are inherently personal, but I think it is fair to say that most people would agree that there is an ethical duty to come to the aid of those who are in peril, a duty that is based upon the principle of reciprocity. To wit, "There but for the grace of God go I." This is not to say that a bystander should feel obliged to put his or her life in jeopardy to rescue someone else or commit resources that would put him or her in dire need. However, somewhere between these two extremes is a place where a reasonable person would acknowledge a duty to act, and it is reasonable to expect that our elected leaders in the United States would acknowledge such a duty as well rather than intentionally burying their heads in the sand.

As a general rule, I do not believe that war should be used as a tool of foreign policy. Specifically, I think the most recent war in Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time. But if there is any moral justification for a nation such as the United States to go to war, stopping or mitigating a genocide in progress would be that moral justification. Indeed, by virtue of the ethical duty to come to the aid of those who are in peril, this type of moral justification for war could easily be characterized as a categorical moral imperative for those in a position to declare war, other things being equal. However, even under the rubric of this type of just war doctrine, the primary objective of military action should be the safe evacuation of political refugees from a country where they are being persecuted rather than regime change. Such limited military engagements could save thousands, if not millions of innocent lives.


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