What is the ethical way to reflect on and respond to the genocide in Darfur?
If you watched Hotel Rwanda last week, you must have walked away feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of suffering borne by the Tutsi people and the few Hutus who sympathized with them, and flabbergasted by the inaction of the international community. In spite of the strength of your feelings, you probably felt helpless to stop another mass genocide—this time in western Sudan. You did what you could. Perhaps you made a donation, bought a bracelet or signed a petition. A week later, do you still remember that 400,000 people have died from the genocide in Darfur?
Genocide is overpowering, in terms of the flagrant manner with which it strikes at our common code of humanity as well as the scale on which it engulfs our fellow human beings. In the face of something so overwhelming, it is easy to turn away from the pain and suffering of its victims, especially when they don’t live right across the border. As Joaquin Phoenix said in Hotel Rwanda, "I think they'll say, 'Oh my god, that's horrible.' Then they'll go on eating their dinner." Such apathy seems like a knee-jerk response, considering the inability of any one individual to stop genocide, but it is ethically irresponsible. By ignoring the problem, you are personally allowing genocide to continue unchallenged. As a conscious bystander, you are directly contributing towards the degradation of human morality. When apathy becomes our answer, then the state of our humanity comes into question.
What is the cure for apathy? In sympathizing with the people of Darfur, you have taken the first step. However, it is only by empathizing with victims of genocide that you can really escape apathy. While it is impossible for most outsiders to imagine the full scale of their suffering, making an effort at true empathy demands that we at least educate ourselves about the crisis and its context, and recognize that the victims are human beings with unique ways of life that are disrupted by genocide. Empathy means you are not afraid to care, that you do not shirk personal connection to a reality that men, women and children in Darfur wake up to every morning. It means staring genocide in the face and not turning away.
Genuine empathy necessitates action. If each person who commits to staying engaged educates their community about Darfur, our energy will spread. Any comprehensive action towards the events in Darfur will have to begin one voice at a time. Your voice matters. In the past, this ripple effect has proved powerful enough to force world leaders to take action. Our current political and social institutions are created with our personal interests in mind and if we do not make an issue out of the appalling silence over Darfur, there will continue to be a disconnect between the suffering in Darfur and our institutions’ priorities. The Holocaust Museum has three commandments concerning genocide: 1) Thou shalt not be a victim, 2) Thou shalt not be a perpetrator, and 3) Thou shalt not, above all, be a bystander. If we let each other forget Darfur, 10 years from now we will watch Hotel Sudan, buy a bracelet, and go back to dinner.
Miranda Fix and Selena Pang (members of STAND)