On Tuesday evening, I received a short email from Mark Goldberg, my colleague at UN Dispatch, a site we run in conjunction with the UN Foundation. The message was this:
massive, 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. really, really devastating
Mark is an even-tempered and measured guy and I knew that he wouldn't exaggerate the severity of the situation.
In the days since the quake struck, I've tried, like so many millions of people, to do as much as possible to raise awareness, donate money, and help the victims of the Haiti catastrophe.
I've done it because I believe it is absolutely imperative that we try our best to help all innocent living beings in need - it's truly the highest calling and perhaps our ultimate moral purpose.
The world's response to Haiti is fully warranted - anything less would be reprehensible. But one thing about it frustrates me: why can't we muster the same sense of urgency, the same focus, the same acceptance that other lesser activities must be temporarily set aside; why can't we mobilize as quickly and react as fiercely and forcefully when it comes to similar calamities across the globe? Say, for instance, the monstrous sexual violence in Congo?
When young girls are being gang-raped with bayonets and chunks of wood, their insides ripped apart, how can the world take it in stride? There's simply no excuse for a muted response, let alone indifference. None.
Are the two situations comparable? One is a natural disaster, the other is a man-made one. I don't think it makes a difference - suffering is suffering. We should act decisively and immediately in both circumstances. If anything, the man-made one is more preventable.
Is it a matter of scale? Let's look at the numbers. Estimates are very rough, but we're hearing figures as high as 50,000 dead in Haiti. Thousands more are trapped and injured. Surely, those numbers dwarf what's going on in Congo? They don't. The NYT says:
according to the UN, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country. ... brutality toward women [is] "almost normal."
Is it because the Congo situation and other nightmares like it (hunger, poverty, disease, human rights abuses, trafficking, etc.) are intractable and people - and the media - naturally lose interest when they see that they can't change things? Well, they don't seem to lose interest when it's Natalee Holloway, OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Laci Peterson, or any number of similar stories. Apparently, Americans can stay rapt for months and years, following every twist and turn of a crime or celebrity death. Roadblock news coverage, online buzz, and endless commentary are a given when there's another twist in one of those tales. I've seen more attention paid to the recent musical chairs played by late night comedy hosts than to some of the preventable misery taking place at this very moment here in the U.S. and around the world.
Is the lackluster reaction to the horrors in places like Congo a result of overload - there are just so many ills in the world that we only respond when shaken to action by something dramatic and unexpected like a tsunami or earthquake? That's certainly a factor, but some catastrophes are worse than others. Granted there's a sliding scale of interest and people are more inclined to worry about their own issues than the ongoing difficulties of others. But there has to be some triage, some acknowledgment that certain situations are more deserving of bold action than others. Girls and women being brutalized by the tens of thousands? That's one of those situations.
I'm realistic about the dim prospects of fixing some the world's problems. I saw enough misery and bloodshed growing up in Beirut to last a lifetime, so I know that we'll never root out evil and violence. I understand that there are complex political and social obstacles to addressing problems like Darfur and Congo. I also realize that most people on this planet have a hard enough time getting by and dealing with their own challenges. They can barely spare time or resources to protect women and children a world away. But those of us who can, must act with the same passion and urgency to some of the terrible things that occur around the world as we have to Haiti. And the media - traditional and online - should pay the same attention and generate the same level of intensity.
It's encouraging to see presidential statements, celebrity telethons, text message fundraising, and wall to wall media coverage of Haiti. I'd like to see the same thing for other emergencies, some of which may be occurring in slower motion, but are occurring nonetheless.
The conditions that allow for political action are popular attention and support - when the people turn away, the politicians lose interest, when they rise up, political leaders take note. Let's learn from Haiti that it's possible to do big, good things.