News

AN OPEN HAND, A CLOSED FIST

A rare moment of unanimity in the presidential debates came when the candidates were asked about Darfur, the western region of Sudan. As the ruling government has pursued a ruthless policy of ethnic cleansing designed to destroy the village structure there, more than a million people have fled their homes. Women have been systematically raped, children have been kidnapped and turned into slaves and an estimated 70,000 people have died because of the conflict. Both President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry used the same word to describe the situation, a word that in semantic currency carries a heavy weight. "It is a genocide," the senator said. "I agree," said the president, "it's genocide."

Then they went on to tussle over Iraq.

Reasonable people can disagree about exactly what the United States ought to do as one group of Sudanese is being intentionally slaughtered by another. Kerry argued that more needed to be done but that the president had overcommitted American troops in Iraq; Bush countered with the $200 million in aid that he said had already been earmarked for humanitarian efforts.

But most notable was that afterward, there was very little public attention paid to the question, the answers or the issue. To hear Americans talk after visiting the Holocaust museum, reading Anne Frank's diary or even watching "Schindler's List," you would think they would be galvanized in the face of what politicians from opposite sides of the aisle agree is genocide, the planned extermination of an entire group of people.

It is not so.

Who are we, we Americans? The answer is murkier at this moment than at any point in our history. Election Day is probably an ideal time to stop and think about that, although it seems we rarely think about it at all.

As the former Soviet Union withered, we became the only real superpower on the face of the earth. What does that mean, apart from arrogance and dominance? The writer Samantha Power, whose book on genocide, "A Problem From Hell," won the Pulitzer Prize, recalled that when she went to Bosnia the people there welcomed the presence of reporters. They believed that if the people of the world, particularly the people of the United States, were told about the murders and the rapes and the brutality, something would be done. She stayed long enough to see the welcome decline into weary cynicism: no one was coming, no one cared. The phrase "never again" was an archival piece of outrage.

Is that who we are? Are we inspired only by personal vengeance, not human-itarian succor? Are we willing to make war in Iraq but not peace in Sudan? What moves us to action?

There have been watershed moments when the citizens of this nation have taken stock of their core beliefs: when the country was founded, when it splintered into warring halves, when it was drawn into world wars. Perhaps it is true that, as James Baldwin once wrote, "an identity is questioned only when it is menaced."

Institutions usually hammer out their core principles when they work on a mission statement. Corporations frequently do it in crisis. A management consultant once complained to me of the search for a CEO at one Fortune 500 firm, "They're doing it backward. They'll pick the guy, then try to get him to take them where they want to go. They ought to decide where they're heading, then pick the guy who is most likely to take them there."

By that definition presidential elections in the modern age are a little backward, too. There's too much about the guy and not enough about the goals. Part of that is because real debate and discussion get lost in election rhetoric that is a dissonant combination of homogenized and calcified, the lowest common denominator set in stone.

But in this, as in so many other aspects of our lives, Americans ought to shoulder the blame for their own shortcomings, something else we seem congenitally loath to do. When the media produce pap, it's because those are the covers that sell and the programs that spike in the Nielsens. When companies manufacture junk and junk food, it's because that's what we buy.

We complain that the political process is dominated by platitudes and PACs. That's because it can be, because the American people have too often been spectators, not participants. We ask a guy to lead without really telling him where we want him to take us. Too often elections are a short-term stopgap for long-term problems.

This is a moment when those questions must be asked again, now that the United States so towers over the other players on the world stage. Are we a country willing to match strength with strength of purpose? Are we a country prepared to model free speech for others, or one that will trade its birthright of dissent for national security? Are we a country that cares about the needy and the disenfranchised, or a country of individualists in which self-interest is the ruling ethos? Is our symbol the open hand or the closed fist? Who are we? What do we stand for?

Editor's Pick