Tuesday, June 03, 2003

Earlier this week, on Sunday, I read three articles in the New York Times that struck me as being juxtaposed in a particularly apropos fashion. The first one was about President Bush's visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau -- his first stop on his European tour. The second was about the discovery of a mass grave in Hilla, Iraq. The third was about the deaths of over three million people in the Congo in the last four years.

On Bush's visit, David Sanger writes (June 1, 2003)

. . . .Mr. Bush made the Auschwitz complex of slave-labor camps and extermination camps, of which Birkenau is a horrific part, his first stop in Europe. This morning he called it "a sobering reminder of the power of evil and the need for people to resist evil."

So it was that a president who rarely talks in public about the influences of history, but who has several times compared the mission of his presidency to the mission of those who defeated Hitler, appeared this morning under the gate that still reads "Arbeit Macht Frei," or "Work Makes You Free."

. . . .The president himself frequently uses the image of confronting evil to explain the pre-emptive turn in American foreign policy, and to force Europeans to make choices that, in their view, are far less stark than the one that confronted the world in World War II.

So for Mr. Bush, Auschwitz today served not only a symbolic purpose, but a diplomatic one. He arrived here today to drive home his argument — without ever quite saying so directly — that America's traditional allies made a huge historical mistake when they opposed decisive military action against Saddam Hussein.

In a speech at Wawel Castle here a few hours after leaving Auschwitz, he cited the experience of prisoner A70713 — Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate — and said the death camps were a reminder of why America and its allies could never again make the mistake of waiting too long to confront a tyrant.

"All the good that has come to this continent — all the progress, the prosperity, the peace — came because beyond the barbed wire there were people willing to take up arms against evil," Mr. Bush said.

While I have a great deal of sympathy for President Bush's language of fighting against evil, his rhetoric masks the fact that the U.S. did not enter the Second World War in order to stop the Holocaust. The Allied victory in the war did stop the killing -- but that was not why the war was fought. To claim otherwise is to ignore the considerable anti-semitism that prevented many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany from immigrating to other countries (for example, the St. Louis, a ship which contained many German Jewish refugees, was turned back from both the U.S. and Cuba in 1939, and forced to return to Germany). I don't think that we can so thoughtlessly commend ourselves for "taking up arms against evil."

There is, of course, ample evidence for the evil of the regime of Saddam Hussein, as Susan Sachs reported also on Sunday, June 1:

A Grim Graveyard Window on Hussein's Iraq

HILLA, Iraq, May 30 — He was a good soldier, so when he heard the first crack of the executioners' guns, Fadel al-Shaati said he instinctively dropped to the ground and pressed himself against a wall of the freshly dug trench.

He could not get it straight in his mind. The men firing at him were comrades in arms, men of his own Iraqi Army. But they had inexplicably dragged him from his bed in his nightclothes, as they had so many others, and forced him, blindfolded and bound, into this pit in the darkness of night.

Now, 12 years later, Mr. Shaati cannot remember if the women and children beside him screamed as the bullets hit, or whether the men in the hole moaned as they died. He only recalls a moment of hollow silence when the soldiers stopped shooting.

Then came the throaty rumble of a backhoe and the thud of wet earth dropping on bodies. He survived but saw hundreds of other innocents buried in another of Saddam Hussein's anonymous mass graves.

The killing ground of Hilla lies between pockmarked fields, stands of date palms and tufted pastures where sheep and cattle graze. Even today, after the bullet-shattered remains of more than 3,000 people have been pulled from its soil, there is nothing much to distinguish it on the pastoral landscape.

What is remarkable about the site is that it is just one of dozens, possibly hundreds, of secret graveyards scattered across Iraq.

"The truly frightening part is that the number of suspected mass graves is so unfathomable," said Sandra L. Hodgkinson, a State Department official who has been documenting some of the sites for the American occupation forces in Iraq. "They are everywhere. Literally every neighborhood and town is reporting possible grave sites, and from all different periods of time. I think we're going to find them everywhere."

No one really knows how many people were slaughtered by the Iraqi government over the past 35 years. It apparently killed its citizens on a huge scale, both systematically and indiscriminately. Human rights groups, which have tried to document the carnage for years, estimate that nearly 300,000 Iraqis are missing and were probably executed. Tens of thousands more, according to Iraqi opposition groups, may have been imprisoned and tortured, their lives warped forever by what they saw and experienced. . . .

While President Bush has insisted on the need to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq in order to "resist evil," (a goal which I supported, by the way), another mass death has been unfolding in a corner of the world that most Americans pay no attention to: the Congo.

In Sunday's Times, Somini Sengupta reports that the problem there has been the "absence of genocide."

THE problem, up to now, has been the absence of genocide.

For more than four years, desire for the gold and coltan (a mineral used in the computer chip) found in northeastern Congo has turned this region into a showcase of cruelty. Ethnic enmities, the greed and political meddling of neighboring states and lawless militias comprised, in part, of gun-toting children, have created a state of ongoing violence that has claimed the lives of 3.3 million of the Congo's roughly 54 million people, according to a recent estimate by the International Rescue Committee.

The great majority have died of diarrhea, malnutrition and other miseries that could have been prevented if the warring parties hadn't kept humanitarian workers from delivering aid. Just last week, several refrigerators filled with donated medicine were destroyed by ethnic Hema fighters here, in this capital city of the northeastern province of Ituri.

Meanwhile, the nations of the West have looked on, wary of intervening in a nation the size of western Europe, with a history of suffering and turmoil stretching back to the 19th century.

"The immensity of the problem is a good excuse sometimes for doing nothing," said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the United Nations undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, on a visit here this week.

Another excuse, too, was the absence of a Rwanda-style genocide. The very word sparks heated debate among Western aid workers and diplomats here. Is it a genocide when the carnage is mutual? How many thousands have to be killed? Does there have to be majority and minority?

. . . .Then — as though by the intervention of a malicious deity — the latest massacre here unfolded before the eyes of the world. Over several days earlier this month, United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers stationed here watched as Hema and Lendu militias went around hacking babies and old men, dumping bodies in a water tank, slaughtering people seeking refuge in a church.

. . . .As news trickled out from the United Nations compound here, alarms rang in its New York headquarters. On Friday, the Security Council authorized a French-led multinational peacekeeping force of up to 1,400 troops, with the first troops to arrive this week.

"Enough is enough," Mr. Guehenno said, reflecting the galvanizing effects of mass murder in the proximity of western observers. This is the same province, after all, where about 50,000 people have been killed over the past five years.

The plain fact, aid workers and diplomats here agree, is that the international community doesn't think it can afford the stain of another Rwanda. And this time, none can say they didn't know what was happening.

Is this not also an evil that we should resist -- not, in this instance, by invading the Congo, but by other means? I am reminded of 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, when the U.S. government and many others "stood idly by" while up to one million people were slaughtered. It is to the great shame of the people of the United States, not merely our government, that we did not go out into the streets and demand that the U.S. and the U.N. do everything we could to stop the genocide. This was a failure of both left and right -- and it seems likely that this failure will be repeated. Both the left and right are preoccupied with the war in Iraq and its aftermath. The President's rhetoric about the need to resist evil, especially when uttered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, is very compelling -- why not similarly inspire this country to try to stop the ongoing killing in the Congo? The left's humanitarian concern for the effects of the (now-lifted) U.N. sanctions and the war in Iraq upon Iraqi civilians is equally commendable -- why don't we see a mass buildup of support and demonstrations for a U.S./U.N. intervention to stop the slaughter and disease in the Congo?

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