The Obligation to Act

In 1969, Abbie Hoffman--then a hero of mine--made a statement I have never forgotten; he described Woodstock as "the first attempt to land a man on the earth." It was a profound comment about a trivial topic, but it rings in my ears still. I thought of it again recently reading Teilhard de Chardin, who describes a process he calls "hominisation" by which man becomes man.

To de Chardin, hominisation as a process is far from complete. In other words, we are not fully human yet; we glitter with potential but may fail. There are many stations of the cross (Teilhard was a Catholic priest; this is his comparison) on the way to hominisation; surely, preventing mass murder on our planet is an important one.

Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina is an example of the human being we do not want to be. Helms tacitly supports covert murder as a routine tactic in American foreign policy; yet at the same time, he does not wish to see any overt foreign policy, especially any "humanitarian" intervention in foreign affairs. He has used his position as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee to bring U.S. foreign policy almost to a standstill.

On the topic of the Rwanda genocide, Helms once made a really derisory remark, at once revealing his ignorance, hatefulness and racism: he called the Rwandan murderers and their victims "the Hutus and the Tutus." The subtext of this statement is, "They are the same as each other, we don't really care what they do to one another, and the whole situation is funny anyway."

In the United States today, the worst people--I include Senator Helms among them--are passionately certain that the U.S. has no humanitarian or human rights role to play overseas, and that belonging to international organizations is dangerous to American sovereignty. Since de Chardin foresaw the coagulation of the entire human race into one "noosphere"--society of mind--encompassing the planet, he would doubtless say that these are the people who wish to turn back the clock, to prevent evolution from occuring. (It is not exactly coincidental that many of these are the same people who deny the reality of biological evolution.)

Yeats said that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Many people to whom human rights are a topic of incredible importance soured on the idea of the U.S. as international policeman decades ago. There are two reasons for this. One is the abuse of the role. Vietnam was first described as a police action; to most Americans who opposed that war, the U.S., if a policeman at all, was a psychopathic and brutal one. Second is exhaustion and practicality. After a certain age, one desires to be a pragmatist, and statements like "We can't be the world's policeman," take on a certain appeal.

But why not? The world is no more than a sort of Ur New York City, if you will. Imagine if we lived in a proto-New York together, with crime but without police, and we looked at each other and said, "We can't be New York's policemen." But why not? Do we want to live safely? If we don't do it, who will do it? If we don't have the strength or desire to be policemen ourselves, then let's at least band together and hire some policemen; let's make sure that our society is in fact policed.

The question of whether we will tolerate new genocides is not peripheral. It is central. Our identity as humans depends on it. There are only two roads. One leads to a world of laws, just as we now live in a country of laws. The other way is to remain primitive, hunkered down like Senator Helms, disregardful or even laughing as the "Hutus and Tutus" slaughter each other. Which world do you want to live in?

Before you can cure a disease you must recognize it. T.S. Eliot remarked that "humankind cannot bear very much reality"; we have so many excuses, so many little accomodations and badges of nonresponsibility. De Chardin examined the question of whether his theory of human evolution supported social Darwinism, or the genocide that is at the extreme end of that spectrum. No, he concluded. Evolution is reversing its trend in humans. In every other species it has led to more specialization. Despite such a tendency in humans--the formation of races, for example--for centuries now we have tended instead, like no other species, towards greater complexity, living together in increasingly larger and multi-ethnic social groupings and states, intermarrying, tending more and more to become one thing on the planet, not many. When the first--some would argue the second--modern, high tech genocide occurred, we blinked and said, "We understand." We paid lip service to the idea that we must never let it happen again. For five decades, we have taught our children--most of us--that it is wrong. We have uttered the words "Never again." Now, in Rwanda, Hutus murdered Tutsis, purely for who they were, for the race identified on a photo ID card. And we, the rest of the world, stood at a crossroads.

U.S. officials, and those of other Western countries, were forbidden to utter the word "genocide" during the weeks when half a million Tutsi people were being murdered. Why? Because the international convention we had signed on genocide would have obligated us to take action, if we conceded one was occurring. Our cowardice prevented us from admitting reality, and the charitable action taken afterwards, as Alain Destexhe points out, was no more than a mask for the reality. We assimilate mass murder to tornados or earthquakes, take no steps to prevent it, then content ourselves delivering blankets and food afterwards.

Mass murder stands with the population, the environment, and nuclear weapons as a problem we must solve to become who we must be. We cannot stay as we are. Neither evolution nor the Second Law of Thermodynamics supports the proposition that we may stay as we are. We must either proceed or collapse into inconsequence.