- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

The irony is bitter. Ten years after the fact, the Rwandan genocide, as unnatural a calamity as any the world had seen in 50 years, stands another chance of penetrating the West’s popular consciousness, thanks to “Hotel Rwanda,” an earnest, insistent movie enjoying critical praise and Oscar buzz.

But, for the last two weeks, the world’s attention — and its sympathy — has been riveted on a natural calamity in South Asia and East Africa.

The world continues to blanch at the loss of life attributable to the tsunamis in and around the Indian Ocean. Rightly so: At press time the official death count was 139,000 and still rising. There are bodies not yet discovered, and diseases lurk among the living.

The enormity is staggering. But think about this: That would have been about two weeks’ work between April and July 1994 in Rwanda, the central African country where a militia of machete-wielding ethnic Hutus killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

A humanitarian crisis followed in the aftermath of the slaughter, as 2 million Hutus, fearing retribution from a victorious Tutsi army, poured out of Rwanda into neighboring Congo.

The Rwandan genocide saw tidal waves of murder for 100 days straight. Yet the world blinked right after it blanched.

Sure, proclamations of shock and condemnation were issued by this and that nation. But none acted to stop it, and the United Nations pulled up stakes after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were shot and killed.

“How could a million lives of the Rwandan people be regarded as so insignificant by anyone in terms of strategic or national interest?” queried Rwandan President Paul Kagame at an April conference in Kigali, Rwanda, marking the 10th anniversary of the genocide.

“Do the powerful nations have a hidden agenda?” he asked. “I would hate to believe that this agenda is dictated by racist considerations or the color of the skin.”

This is the none-too-subtle indictment found in “Hotel Rwanda,” an account, alternately tragic and comical, of hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina’s frenetic efforts — which included bribery and many artful fibs — to shelter more than 1,200 Tutsis in a Belgian-owned hotel that, before the violence broke out, had been a posh oasis for Rwandan elites and European tourists.

The fecklessness of the United Nations is personified by the bedraggled Nick Nolte, who plays the Canadian commander of the blue-beret-wearing peacekeepers. (They’re ordered not to fight back.) Radio broadcasts tell a story of Western indifference. And it’s intimated — surprise, surprise — that the French had a hand in arming the Hutus.

Shot by director Terry George on a modest budget, “Rwanda” is not epic in scale. Its horrors are more intimate, more psychological, than they are graphic. Even without frequent scenes of Mel Gibson-style carnage, the brutality is closely felt.

Today, apologies and Monday-morning moral harrumphing are all the rage.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who in 1994 headed the organization’s peacekeeping department, admitted he fouled up. “I believed at that time that I was doing my best,” he said. “But I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support.”

Here is former President Bill Clinton’s mea culpa, rendered in his memoir “My Life”: “We were so preoccupied with Bosnia, with the memory of Somalia just six months old, and with opposition in Congress to military deployments in faraway places that were not vital to the national interests that neither I nor anyone on my foreign policy team adequately focused on sending troops to stop the slaughter.”

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt apologized for everyone in 2000: “I confirm that the international community as a whole carries a huge and heavy responsibility in the genocide.”

Apologizing is easy.

Mr. George, an Irishman, recently addressed an audience after a screening of his film at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He said the West could have begun atoning for Rwanda by doing something about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Mr. George’s passion is obvious and well-taken, but here’s the thing: Moral clarity from the distance of a decade is as cheap and easy as apologizing.

Today, intervention in Rwanda might seem like an obvious choice, but that’s because the moment of decision is safely in the past. We now know the costs of nonintervention. We’ll never know what the costs of intervention might have been. Because we are only human, the latter never seem to weigh as heavily in our moral calculations as the former.

But it’s hard to be an American post-Iraq and not be acutely aware of the dangers of military intervention.

Balanced moral judgment demands an effort to imagine some of the dangers U.S. military intervention in Rwanda in 1994 might have entailed.

We would’ve been intervening in a civil war in a country (like Afghanistan) with difficult terrain and (like Iraq) with a history of violent ethnic conflict.

The Clinton administration in 1994 would have had to face the same recalcitrant U.N. Security Council the Bush administration did in 2003. And the United States would likely have had to go in without much help.

American GIs would no doubt have killed innocent Rwandans.

Errant bombs may have taken out a hospital or a school or an embassy.

Prisoners may have been abused.

Enemy warlords with the blood of American soldiers on their hands might have gained immunity from punishment in exchange for withdrawing from the battle.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Moral reasoning through art is well and good, but typical of the artistic viewpoint is the mistaking of conviction for actual courage. Mr. Rusesabagina is certainly a hero, and he’d be the first to tell you he had to compromise with the devil to save lives, but that he’d do it all over again if he had to.

Sending aid to tsunami-stricken survivors in the Third World does not require devilish deal making. Going to war does — always and inevitably.

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