This April 28, it is certain that the number of people who will turn out in Washington, DC to push for the North Korea Freedom Act will be far less than the number who would turn out in opposition to a war with North Korea. Why do anti-war protestors not take up anti-genocide efforts with the same zeal, even when the number of lives lost may be much greater in genocide than in war? It need not be an either/or choice between being anti-war and anti-genocide, but based on the numbers of protestors in both venues, it seems to turn out that way.One of our mottos is: “Let all the anti-war protestors of tomorrow join our anti-genocide efforts of today”. It was adopted in view of Samantha Power’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic, 2002). If the number of protestors who had turned out in New York to oppose the current Iraq war had also turned out to oppose, for example, the lack of US intervention in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, President Clinton would have been more prone to act decisively and there might still be 800,000 Rwandans alive today. But alas, the same person who had opposed US intervention in Rwanda, Richard Clarke, is lauded by anti-war activists for his criticisms of the Bush administration’s actions in Iraq.
So what is it about war that trumps genocide in capturing the hearts and minds of most activists? It could not be a concern for the loss of innocent life. Consider Rwanda, and ponder the casualties from US Apache helicopters engaging machete-wielding Hutus, and weigh the number of innocent lives that would have been saved and lost from such a confrontation. In a nutshell, far more activists show up at a Washington, DC protest against war than a protest against genocide because most people ignore the gravity of the sin of omission.
Take the current Iraq war as a case in point. Anti-war activists have loudly and persistently pointed to an estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed, hospitals being closed, children being maimed, sharpshooters targetting civilians, not to mention the growing number of Americans killed in action – now around 700 – all as a result of the US invasion, the sin of commission.
But contrast that with the anti-genocide outlook which does not consider the sin of commission to be the end all guide to moral prohibitions. As Johann Hari cites, the Iraqi-based Human Rights Centre in Kadhimiya found – based on government archives – that if the invasion had not happened, “Saddam would have killed 70,000 people in the past year. Not sanctions: Saddam’s tyranny alone.”
In short, there is blood on both sides’ hands; and the sooner anti-war activists can recognize that fact, the sooner we may see the number of anti-genocide protestors increase.
The parallel here to North Korea is obvious if not more complicated by the fact that a war on the Korean peninsula would result in far more lives being lost than is now the case with Iraq or would have been the case with military intervention for Rwanda. To even contemplate what North Korea’s 13,000 artillery and multiple rocket launcher systems would do to Seoul’s population of 10 million in the first hour terrifies the heart. Can one really blame the majority of South Korean people who choose to appease and prop up Kim Jong Il’s regime rather than face his wrath?
But then there are the anti-genocide activists who cannot help but feel responsibility for the twenty million oppressed North Koreans, the two million starved to death by Kim Jong Il’s regime in the past decade alone, the 250,000 family members now dying in gulags, and the 250,000 being exploited in China. The responsibility felt by South Korean anti-genocide activists is particularly acute because they know that their government and society are primary reasons Kim Jong Il is allowed to perpetuate this cycle of systemic violence. The South Korean people may not be the ones guarding concentration camps and doing the actual killings, but financially and politically supporting those that do is no less troubling for these activists.
Recently there was a mission conference on North Korea held in Southern California. One of the leaders stated, “A sudden regime change in North Korea is not the best solution because it would create havoc in the South as well as in the North.” Most anti-war activists would find nothing wrong with such a comment because most would not feel the effect that such a view would have on the mother or son languishing in the dark in one of the North Korean gulags.
Perhaps therein lies the fundamental difference between anti-war and anti-genocide activists. In order to be an anti-genocide activist, one must fundamentally be on the side of the oppressed, which means, inter alia, affirming that “justice delayed is justice denied”. That is not necessarily the case for anti-war activists as the unmarked graves of 800,000 Rwandans and 6 million Jews can show, if one allows for the sin of omission to weigh heavily on one’s heart long enough to see.