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The morality of doing nothing

Alan Braunholtz

Sometimes a movie is so terribly good it haunts you. “Hotel Rwanda” is one of these movies for me. It covers a 3-month period in the early summer of 1994 when extremist Hutus in the army and militias slaughtered 900,000 Tutsis in an attempted genocide.How anyone can take a machete to families and orphanages is beyond me, but the slaughter of innocents is a constant of history. Fear and hate can make people do anything, and demagogues find these easy cards to play in their lust for power. Catholics and Protestants have massacred each other for centuries at the urging of various leaders. Politicians preaching nationalistic intolerance turned Yugoslavia into a morass of ethnic murder. The power of leaders like Gandhi who manage to change the world without violence becomes all the more amazing when viewed against human history.In “Hotel Rwanda,” radio stations release a steady stream of vitriol encouraging violence against all Tutsis. After this movie it’s harder to lightly dismiss the religious nut radio stations here that celebrate the death of homosexuals, chortle “they’re going to hell” and encourage the picketing of gay funerals.”Hotel Rwanda” details the efforts of Paul Rusesabina, a Hutu, to protect over a thousand Tutsis hiding in the Belgian-owned luxury hotel he manages from the slaughter. He does this with a clever mix of chutzpa, bribes and calling in old and future favors. He’s an African Oskar Schindler. Like that movie, one’s left with the question of “How did the world let this happen?”Feelings of anger, numbing sadness and guilt after watching Oskar Schindler are softened, as it’s more of a reflection on general humanity than a personal one. I mean few of us were alive when the world turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. The “I wasn’t there” excuse doesn’t work for Rwanda. It happened just 10 years ago and we were here reading the papers, watching the news and snickering at the silly-sounding Hutu and Tutsi labels to Western ears.Everyone knew what was happening, our leaders did nothing, and we didn’t ask them to. It brings into question the whole world’s humanity, the pressure of public opinion that supposedly forces governments, business and individuals into doing the right thing. It certainly didn’t work for the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Are we that apathetic and selfishly wrapped up in what only directly affects us?Gandhi’s whole strategy in India relied on the decency of British public opinion, which couldn’t stomach the murder of innocents and would eventually face the inherent unfairness of their empire. Would it work for Gandhi now? Without a public outcry against the actions of governments or the suppliers of the goods we live to consume, probably not. Fair trade goods are still regarded as something only bought by those wacky do-gooders instead of the normal do nothingers.Inaction can be morally wrong. “Hotel Rwanda” shocked and embarrassed me. The U.N. did nothing. NATO did nothing. The U.S. did nothing. All the power of Western civilization did nothing. And I did nothing.The only possible excuse is the racist discounting we assign to the value of Third World lives: “They’re so used to disasters, disease and war it means less to them.” Headlines highlight the number of European lives lost in the recent tsunami. Disturbingly, sometimes the locals discount their own lives, too. Brazilian papers are covering the murder of an American nun by gunmen connected to timber and ranching industries. The regular murder of Brazilians who also oppose these powerful interests to try and help the indigenous poor of the rain forests gets little coverage.The most shocking line from “Hotel Rwanda” comes from a Canadian UN officer who tries to express his disgust with this Western attitude as the UN abandons the Tutsis after rescuing the trapped Europeans and Americans. “You should spit on me Paul. We think you’re dirt not even a … . You’re an African.”The movie ends with a message of hope as a rebel Tutsi army invades and manages to stop the killing. Rwanda has made huge strides since then with a democratic government, the empowerment of women, and attempted reconciliation of people who tried to kill each other. The government makes this harder by only focusing on the Tutsi losses, ignoring the initial massacres of moderate Hutus and the later massacres by the invading Tutsi army in western Rwanda of many Hutus and then in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.Congo is the fly in any happy ending for central Africa. Since 1994 there’s been a constant war in eastern Congo, with seven nations and many militias involved. Originally a continuation of the ethnic struggles in Rwanda, it is now more about profit and power over the mineral rich eastern borders. Coltan, a rare mineral vital to cell phones, comes from here.Without a disarming of the militias and enforcement of Congo’s borders to bring some stability and cut off the mineral (and arms) smuggling that funds this war, it looks to go on. The U.N. has troops on the ground but needs more and a larger commitment to rebuild the Congo. Some 3.8 million people, mostly civilians, have died in this war, four times the number in the Rwandan genocide.Saying “never again” requires action and sacrifice if it is to mean anything. The U.N. failed in 1994 by not acting. It looks to be failing again by committing insufficient resources. The Congo is a complex mess, but acting and failing is better than not even trying.Inaction is to accept that part of the human condition is to grab a machete and slash a stranger’s child for no other reasons than fear and greed. No civilization should be able to accept that.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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