Jewish World Review May 6, 2004 / 15 Iyar, 5764
on our radar
This is a story about mass murder, human catastrophe and the really important things in life.
A few years ago, I went out to dinner with a close friend. I won't mention his name. He had just bought an expensive refrigerator and it was all he could talk about. He was especially excited by a little bulb that illuminated the vegetable bin or fruit drawer, something like that.
Eventually, I managed to steer the conversation away from the new Sub-Zero. There had been an earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that day. Thousands were reported killed.
"I saw it on TV," my friend said. "What a disaster. Just a terrible, terrible thing."
I could tell he was sincere. But I also knew that, in his heart, he cared less about the victims in Kobe than he did about that little light in his fridge.
Okay, that's human nature. Few of us spontaneously feel the pain of distant strangers. Even when the pain is excruciating, as it appears to be now in Darfur.
Darfur is a region in Sudan where black tribesmen are being massacred in the thousands by Arabs. Senior UN officials have been quoted as calling this the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. They say it is reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide, whose 10th anniversary we are currently marking.
Nobody said much about Rwanda at the time. And, despite solemn post-genocidal vows of "never again," nobody is saying much about Darfur today. The silence is especially deafening in the black community.
Perhaps it is unfair to expect African-Americans to care more than their fellow citizens about an African massacre. But that's how things work in this country. The task of rallying concern and sympathy over foreign tragedies begins with whatever American ethnic community identifies with the victims. Memorably, African-Americans led the fight to end South African apartheid.
Not this time. "I don't know if there is a domestic constituency for Africa anymore," said Noelle LuSane, foreign affairs adviser to Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.). Her boss is in charge of African issues for the Congressional Black Caucus. So far, his main effort on the Darfur front consists of sending a letter to the State Department. LuSane doesn't recall getting a reply.
Where's the outrage? "We're numb," said Bill Fletcher, the president of TransAfrica Forum, a group that led the campaign against apartheid. "Rwanda, Liberia, the Congolese civil war that killed millions it's now seen as almost common." Fletcher believes African-Americans are reluctant to address Darfur because the atrocities are being committed by Arabs. "It's easier for the community to deal with tensions between blacks and whites, like in Zimbabwe," he said.
Or to stick to the refrigerator. A spokesman for Rep. Charles Rangel said the Harlem Democrat is "very disturbed" by what's happening, but that his "hands are very full with all the Ways and Means stuff going on and, of course, the war." The war in Iraq, that is.
Tomorrow, the House International Relations Committee is set to hold a hearing on Darfur. A resolution and much breast-beating will follow. The black caucus will send a letter to the President, calling on him to act.
"[President] Bush should at least take responsibility," agreed Al Sharpton. "But so should elected black leaders." Sharpton is planning to show them how - and show them up by
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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
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