Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Marching through the streets of Washington has become a national pastime. Some marchers catch the zeitgeist and make a difference, and some don’t. All politics is local, a wise old pol famously said, but to make it count all politics has to be vocal, too.

The March on Washington protesting the Vietnam War in 1969 is remembered for drawing a million people to the mall, and whether it actually drew that many marchers, the armies of that good night established the benchmark by which such protests are measured. The 1969 march attracted all manner of celebrities, demanding to bring home our boys from a faraway killing place. This Sunday the marchers will come to Washington to protest genocide in Darfur.

Elie Wiesel, who knows genocide when he sees it, will be on the platform. Joey Cheek, the Olympic speed-skating gold medalist who donated $40,000 of subsequent prize money to Darfur relief, will be there. So will Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize winning author of “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Nevertheless, the march for Darfur will have few of the Hollywood glitterati in its ranks. Darfur ranks well behind immigration, the war in Iraq, abortion and other issues in the public imagination.

Small numbers or not, the march is likely to be the biggest protest since both the Bush administration and the United States Holocaust Museum called the killings in Darfur, in western Sudan, by its right name of genocide. Samantha Power asks in her book why Americans who cried “Never again” after the Holocaust have been reluctant, or unwilling, to decry similar genocide in Darfur and other countries that vary in scope. “Despite graphic media coverage, American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil,” she writes. “They trust in good-faith negotiations and traditional diplomacy.” This sounds good, but it allows the politicians to interpret silence as indifference; if the people don’t care, why should they?

A March poll by Zogby International found that 62 percent of 1,000 people surveyed believe the United States has a “responsibility” to stop the genocide in Darfur. But recognizing responsibility is not the same as endorsing action. Many Americans who want their country to act in Darfur are outspoken against action in Iraq and are loathe to dispatch soldiers to a place they think makes no direct impact on us.

Letting the United Nations do it ordinarily would be OK, but the U.N. is usually unwilling and often incompetent. When President Bush asked for NATO action in Darfur, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the head of NATO, told an interviewer for PBS that “Africans feel very strongly that they should take care of problems on their own continent.” That’s exactly the problem, as the rooster said of the fox in his henhouse.

The numbers of men castrated and women raped, often in the presence of their children, are well documented. The deaths may number as many as 400,000, committed by the Sudanese military and its allies in the Janjaweed movement. Many of the slain were Christians, but there’s no reluctance to kill Muslims who may be in the way of the evil lust for absolute power. Where are the Muslims who only yesterday were so upset by a cartoon in Danish newspapers they couldn’t read?

Osama bin Laden, who ran training camps in Sudan before he moved his base of operation to Afghanistan, urged his followers in his videotaped message broadcast on Al Jazeera last week to fight anyone from the West who rides to the rescue in Sudan.

Representatives of the Save Darfur Coalition, the umbrella organization made up of more than 150 religious and humanitarian groups, are working the campuses for the march on Washington ( Angelina Jolie, who styles herself a United Nations ambassador of good will, describes herself as an “actress… no foreign policy expert” lending her celebrity to the cause. Good for her. You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to recognize an atrocity, and weep for those being slain.

“The Canterbury Tales,” a robust play based on Chaucer’s epic poem, is playing now at the Kennedy Center in Washington. In it, men and women make an April pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Theirs is a medieval version of the spring march in Washington. The 14th-century pilgrims, recruited from different social classes, march in pursuit of salvation. The protestors coming to Washington next Sunday will seek by their presence to save the vulnerable in Darfur by putting pressure on the pols who live here. It’s only a start, but it’s a start.

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