Genocide Too Heavy For Americans

There's a famous story that circulates around Darfur activist circles. President George W. Bush, in the early stages of his presidency, reads journalist Samantha Power's article about America's failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. The new president scrawls a message in the margins: "Not on my watch."

Last week, almost three years since the U.S. officially labeled the situation in Darfur a genocide, the president took a solid step toward making this statement a reality, ordering U.S. sanctions tightened against Sudan's government.

If you're thinking to yourself, "Why did this take so long?" then your thoughts are similar to those of human-rights activists around the world, many of whom have been decrying for years the U.S. indifference. Observers have provided a myriad number of reasons for American reluctance to shine the spotlight on this tragedy. As a student organizer, I offer an explanation of my own: Darfur is too heavy.

It is an understatement to declare the genocide in Sudan a weighty subject for discussion. At least 400,000 people have lost their lives. More than 2.5 million people have lost their homes.

The numbers are maddeningly incomprehensible; we can fathom them only in an abstract sense. So it seems only appropriate to leave this in the hands of experts, government figures such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose declaration of genocide in September 2004 was followed by a flurry of media activity. We were reassured that everything was in capable hands. The president, for one, stated, "We're not just playing a diplomatic holding game, but that when we say ‘genocide,' we meant that the genocide needs to be stopped."

The president's remarks came more than a year ago. While we may wish it to be so, there is currently no process, in the U.S. or the United Nations, that automatically links the label of genocide with any form of punitive action. Even so, we heard the rhetoric, and assumed that action would follow. We put our faith in the process, and hoped for the best.

This past spring, I and others read monologues from Darfur refugees on Duke University's campus. The vivid descriptions of a thousand individual atrocities are not ones that can be captured adequately by the use of any single word. Unfortunately, many Americans are only cerebrally aware that this mayhem continues today in Sudan. More people know the results of this season's American Idol than the results of Amnesty International's recent report on Chinese and Russian arms shipments to Sudan. A Google search of "Darfur genocide" returns more than a million results. Not bad, unless one compares it to a search of "Paris Hilton," which returns more than 42 million hits. For what the U.N. has called "the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth," Darfur is depressingly removed from the forefront of the American psyche.

Recent attention on the genocide has many times centered on popular mainstream figures. Steven Spielberg's letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao on China's policy toward Sudan, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's million-dollar contribution to relief efforts, even Google Earth's creation of a map documenting the genocide, have all been powerful validations of the seriousness of the situation. Mainstream actors like Don Cheadle and George Clooney have become activists for the cause, forcing us to pay attention to an issue that, in the words of a San Francisco newspaper editor, "just doesn't push a button."

Unless we push that button, politicians and media corporations can drag their feet indefinitely, with repeated attempts at compromise from the government and third-page coverage from the newspapers. President Bush has taken a powerful step toward ending the genocide in Sudan, and he should be applauded for it. But the bloodshed in Darfur was exposed as a genocide long ago. In November 2004, ABC's Nightline ran a Sudan segment titled, "Never Again." Ted Koppel asked viewers to "stay with us for a moment before you decide to turn away to something lighter."

Today, we still must resist the impulse to turn way from the heaviness that is the genocide in Darfur. If we can do this, we may never have to ask again, "Why did we take so long?"