They lined up at the airport in Kigali, a collection of survivors from what may have been the worst act of genocide since Adolf Hitler's "final solution." As President Clinton listened, they told of unfathomable horrors, of being beaten with machetes, of watching as parents, spouses and children were mutilated and killed, and of hiding amid piles of corpses to avoid detection.
Who could listen without feeling outrage? Clinton was right to express regrets that the rest of the world did not act soon enough to stop the killing. When faced with the awful reality of what happened, and of what it meant to hundreds of thousands of human beings, the world's inaction is indeed appalling. Most Americans sat in their own soft comfort and paid scant attention to the slaughter, which resulted in the deaths of at least 500,000 people. Families were hunted from their homes. Women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately.But, in expressing regrets, the president didn't get to the heart of why the world moved slowly. The answer lies in leadership. Rwanda is a distant land whose interests are not considered vital to the United States or most Western nations. Americans are no different than people elsewhere. They are reluctant to send their young men and women to die in faraway places where the cause is not readily apparent.
At the time, the deaths of U.S. rangers in Somalia still weighed heavily on most Americans, as well as on the government. Politically, the time was not right to champion another military cause in Africa. Belgian forces were on hand to protect the Hutu prime minister, but 10 of them were murdered as the killings began.
A president with strong leadership and clear vision could have successfully intervened, convincing the American people that the cause was necessary. Clinton wasn't up to the task at the time. Neither were the French, who had helped the extremist Hutu regime survive earlier attacks. The question is whether either would be more willing to help today. It is significant to note that the killings continue, although at a much slower pace. Tutsi government leaders are blamed for some of it. Hutu militia are blamed, as well. Yet the world is doing nothing.
To be fair, this type of leadership is rare. American soldiers likely would have died, and they might not have arrived in time to stop much of the bloodshed, which happened quickly. The parents of soldiers would have wondered about the cause.
The cause, of course, is human rights. A nation that values life should not sit idly while innocent people are being slaughtered anywhere on the planet. But, of all vital interests, human rights is perhaps the most difficult to champion. It is a weak rallying cry, particularly when it concerns people in distant lands. Unfortunately, that probably hasn't changed since the killings in Rwanda.