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About The Book

Timely and controversial, A Bed for the Night reveals how humanitarian organizations trying to bring relief in an ever more violent and dangerous world are often betrayed and misused, and have increasingly lost sight of their purpose.

Humanitarian relief workers, writes David Rieff, are the last of the just. And in the Bosnias, the Rwandas, and the Afghanistans of this world, humanitarianism remains the vocation of helping people when they most desperately need help, when they have lost or stand at risk of losing everything they have, including their lives.

Although humanitarianism's accomplishments have been tremendous, including saving countless lives, the lesson of the past ten years of civil wars and ethnic cleansing is that it can do only so much to alleviate suffering. Aid workers have discovered that while trying to do good, their efforts may also cause harm.

Drawing on firsthand reporting from hot war zones around the world -- Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, Kosovo, Sudan, and most recently Afghanistan -- Rieff describes how the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, CARE, Oxfam, and other humanitarian organizations have moved from their founding principle of political neutrality, which gave them access to victims of wars, to encouraging the international community to take action to stop civil wars and ethnic cleansing.

This advocacy has come at a high price. By calling for intervention -- whether by the United Nations or by "coalitions of the willing" -- humanitarian organizations risk being seen as taking sides in a conflict and thus jeopardizing their access to victims. And by overreaching, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the major powers, at times becoming a fig leaf for actions those powers wish to take for their own interests, or for the major powers' inaction. Rieff concludes that if humanitarian organizations are to do what they do best -- alleviate suffering -- they must reclaim their independence.

Except for relief workers themselves, no one has looked at humanitarian action as seriously or as unflinchingly, or has had such unparalleled access to its inner workings, as Rieff, who has traveled and lived with aid workers over many years and four continents.

A cogent, hard-hitting report from the front lines, A Bed for the Night shows what international aid organizations must do if they are to continue to care for the victims of humanitarian disasters.


Chapter 1: The Humanitarian Paradox

You are the prosperous citizen of a prosperous country. In practice, this means you are almost certainly a citizen of the United States, Canada, Japan, or one of the countries of the European Union. It also means that, in global terms, you belong to a minority group, at most no more than a tenth of the world's population, and probably a good deal less. Of course, it is a minority of privilege, not of oppression. You, or, to be more accurate, we (I belong to this group too), have the habit of spending at least part of your mornings reading a decent broadsheet newspaper and part of most evenings watching your national television news program. The particular newspaper or TV broadcast is not all that relevant to the scenario that I am trying to construct. After all, when viewed from the perspective of Central Africa, or the slums of Rio de Janeiro, or the jungles of the southern Philippines, or the mountains of Afghanistan, the differences between The New York Times and Le Monde, CNN and TV España, don't amount to very much. What counts is that your habit of reading a newspaper and, above all, of watching the news on television means that you voluntarily expose yourself on a regular basis to at least some of the most horrible things taking place in the world.

If there is a refugee crisis in Burundi, a famine in Somalia, or a war in the Balkans, the fact that you are a faithful consumer of the news will lead to your being confronted by at least some tiny corner of them. To be sure, that exposure is usually both fleeting and superficial. To anyone who knows a subject in any depth, television news, even at its best, seems like reality doled out with an eye-dropper for someone assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. Nowhere is this more true than in the coverage of humanitarian crises, in large measure because no other story that gets any airtime or major newspaper attention at all is so dependably unfamiliar. Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan -- these are places that capture the attention of mainstream, nonspecialist journalists only when a disaster is taking place.

That in itself is a recipe for distortion and misapprehension. The idea that we live in a "global village" was first popularized by the Canadian futurist Marshall McLuhan and then repeated ad nauseam during the great stock market bubble of the 1990s in the form of paeans to globalization and the new "wired" world. This cliché is true and false at the same time. It is true that we have unprecedented access to information thanks to television and the Internet. But it is false that this information necessarily means we understand what we are seeing in any usable way. You can know that there is a famine in southern Sudan. You can wish that it weren't happening, and hope that something will be done about it. But what do you understand about southern Sudan from the images of horror and want that you see on your television screen? Just that there is horror and want, nothing else. You are watching something take place in southern Sudan, but apart from the fact that the people are black, how do you distinguish what you are seeing from something going on in Afghanistan, or East Timor, or Central America? There is horror, but no context, and therefore as much mystification as information results from this new way of accessing the world's tragedies.

The average international story on national television news in the United States lasts one minute and twenty seconds. On that basis alone, it appears almost inevitable that there will be misreporting, even if inadvertent, on the journalist's side and misunderstanding on the viewer's. In Europe, the rhythm is slightly less impatient and commercially driven, but even there such stories rarely clock in at more than three minutes. And what can one say in eighty or ninety seconds or in three minutes? Perhaps it is easier to predict what one cannot say. It is difficult to say something original; it is difficult to explain anything in depth; and it is difficult not to fall into the same clichés about humanitarian disasters that were employed during the last disaster, thus leaching the crisis one is covering of all its tragic specificity. You, the viewer, are not in Afghanistan, Cambodia, or Bosnia so much as you are in humanitarian-tragedy land -- a world of wicked warlords, suffering and innocent victims, and noble aid workers. And whether you know why or not, you have the distinct impression that you have been there before.

It could hardly be otherwise. Given the way humanitarian emergencies are covered, what other impression can the viewer retain but the feeling that out there in the poor world there is a planet of sufferers? The television camera operator's stock-in-trade in a famine or a war is the close-up -- the focus on the baby in the aid worker's arms, the child with flies lighting on her face, the vultures slyly approaching the rotting corpse of the dead militiaman. But the effect on the viewer is to encourage him or her to see this world in long shot. He or she becomes unable to differentiate one person in pain from another, much as someone standing on a high hill will have trouble making out the physiognomy of people in the valley below.

To point this out is not to blame either the media or the audience, let alone the aid workers, whose symbiotic relationship with the media is one of their greatest challenges. These crises are far away and difficult to understand, and human beings are not solidarity machines or professional carers, however much we might wish it otherwise. It is not even clear that if the media were given more time and resources, were permitted to be more deliberate and more serious, people could cope psychologically or morally with the reality of the poor world in all its horror, rage, and complexity. To sympathize in the way that the television images invite us all to do is not difficult. It is with the question of how that sympathy can be translated into action that the problems arise. Does having seen images of starving babies really allow people to come to any kind of informed view about whether there should be an airlift of food, or political engagement, or even a military intervention? And even assuming that the atrocious images of famine do provoke a military intervention, as was the case in Somalia in 1992, is it not inevitable that the public will be utterly unprepared for that intervention to have costs other than financial ones?

In Somalia, this battle of images was soon joined. First there were the images of the famine. As Philip Johnston, former president of the relief group CARE USA, put it in his memoir, Somalia Diary, "Television brought home the urgency of Somalia's tragedy, translating a faraway crisis into a story of human beings who were days, perhaps hours, away from death." As an example of this, he cited an ABC report in which the reporter described a young Somali girl who was "little more than a walking skeleton." As Johnston writes, the point of the story was clear: "As long as marauders kept food from reaching those who needed it most, relief workers would have nothing to offer the most vulnerable."

Johnston's own role in the humanitarian crisis in Somalia was extraordinarily important. Some aid workers believe that he was the driving force behind the militarization of the humanitarian aid effort in the country and the eventual decision by the U.S. government to send in military forces. At the time, he said that if necessary we would "have to fight the Somalis themselves" to make sure the aid got delivered. But what is noteworthy about Johnston's account is something that has become an integral part of the humanitarian repertory, even in crises where there is no question of military force being deployed. His account of the media's role in helping make the American public aware of the crisis is largely devoid of historical context, geographical specificity, and even any real personalization. There is a starving girl, unnamed; there are marauders, unidentified; and there are relief workers, also unspecified. When Johnston speaks approvingly of the media's ability to turn a faraway crisis into a story of human beings, it is hard not to feel that he means human beings in the generic sense. After all, there are no real individuals in the story -- only victims, victimizers, and relief workers who want to help and urgently need the means, which for Johnston at the time meant military force to escort the relief convoys and fight the Somalis who preyed on them.

Johnston was successful in persuading the United Nations to take a more militarized approach to the crisis, and in getting the administration of George Bush senior to commit U.S. troops. And the result was almost inevitable: He who lives by the image, dies by the image. Because of the sympathy these images Johnston approved of had evoked, the American public supported the decision to intervene. Such sympathy may license actions that cost money; it never licenses actions that cost lives. The American public thought its troops were in Somalia on a humanitarian mission -- that is, to do good, not to kill, and certainly not to get killed. And yet to the leading Somali warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid, the U.S. troops were there to thwart his effort to seize power. From his perspective, their mission was political -- that is, to attack him.

And attack they did. But while Aidid could never match the military power of the United States, his fighters in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, soon proved that they were more than a match for the Americans in resolve and determination. On October 3, 1993, they responded to the attempt of American elite forces to seize two of Aidid's lieutenants by shooting down two American helicopters, killing eighteen U.S. soldiers and wounding seventy-seven others. That evening, American television viewers were shocked to see jubilant Somalis dragging the naked bodies of two American helicopter pilots through the dust of Mogadishu. That image far outweighed the images of starving babies. Americans wanted no part of war; they had thought their troops were there to do good. As Johnston -- still, it seems, uncomprehending -- puts it in his book, "Sadly, in all of this, the plight of the Somali people became lost."

Aid workers like to say, in moments of crisis when they are trying to persuade the Western public to support action, that there are times when there is a moral imperative to act. They are not wrong. Where they err is in imagining that either Western governments or the Western public will be willing to sacrifice as well as sympathize in response to images of nameless victims and fables of innocent, apolitical civilians. (Was it really safe to assume that none of these starving people had any politics, or that it was impossible to be, simultaneously, an Aidid supporter and a victim of the famine in Somalia?) Somalia proved the error in this sort of thinking. President Bill Clinton's idealized account of the mission was that the United States "came to Somalia to rescue innocent people in a burning house." It begged the question of how many people it is acceptable to kill in order to be able to save the people in that burning house. But even taken at face value, it made sense only as long as there were no casualties, as Clinton himself would later demonstrate, first by claiming he had never been properly briefed about the military operation to seize Aidid and then by deciding in the aftermath of the debacle to negotiate with Aidid and withdraw U.S. forces.

And if the President of the United States was confused, how could the general public not be confused when the image of the American pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu seemed to trump the images of the starving Somalis? Americans had been fed a benign fairy tale, and when malign reality intruded, public as well as political pressure to get their soldiers out of this unexpected danger as quickly as possible was only to be expected. And despite other humanitarian military interventions in Bosnia (after four years of war), in Kosovo, and in East Timor, the same confusions repeat themselves over and over again. Only when humanitarianism is melded with national interest, as has been the case for most Americans with regard to the war in Afghanistan, is there likely to be any tolerance for casualties. It is for this reason that humanitarians' reliance on the power of images, and on the utopian fantasy of a global village of moral concern, is such a trap. For in reality, few people have as yet become so committed or so conscience-stricken that they are willing to sacrifice their loved ones' lives or even much of their own material comfort to aid strangers. Those who believe themselves bound by these moral imperatives -- and they are the best among us -- tend, if they are not actively engaged already, to get up from their chairs, turn off their television sets, and go work for a relief agency or a charity.

But for all the talk of the "new" activism, and of the rise of what is rather misleadingly called civil society, such conscience-stricken people are still rare. They influence events more than in the past, but their influence is often overstated, by activists anyway. For the most part, the norm remains the same as it has been since we began to understand the limitations of the power of images. The viewer or the reader is hard pressed not to slot the sound bite from the reporter in, say, Afghanistan today into the continuum of sound bites from scenes that he or she has seen since Biafra in the 1960s; or Cambodia at the end of the 1970s; or Ethiopia in the 1980s, when the rock singer Bob Geldof's Live Aid project for the first time made celebrities of humanitarians; or Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo in the 1990s. These tragedies have not lost their power to shock, but they have become familiar, almost as if they were scripted, which in a sense they are, since the reporters who cover them, the aid workers themselves, and, perhaps, the Western public as well, have all been through these stories before. In the end, it is less a question of motives than of structures.

And of course to assume this level of concern in the first place is only relevant to those crises that are actually covered on television. In reality, most of the world's horrors never get any airtime at all. For every Rwanda that is covered, a dozen other unspeakable catastrophes never find their journalistic chroniclers, or, if they do, they get covered perhaps once or twice in the course of a year. From a political standpoint, this means that there will be no public pressure in the West for something to be done. And let us be clear: whether one supports humanitarian intervention or not, whether one believes that humanitarian action is best kept separate from state power or, realistically, must interact with it, the fact remains that only the West is rich enough and powerful enough to intervene in a far-off humanitarian catastrophe in a way that can make a major difference. Again, this is not to say that those few humanitarian interventions that have taken place -- Somalia in 1992-1993, the Balkans between 1991 and 1999, Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide in 1994, and East Timor in 1999 -- have been wholly disinterested. That is not the way great powers act, and it is confusing dream with reality to imagine otherwise.

Taken case by case, these interventions invariably reveal mixed motives and hidden agendas. The intervention in Somalia appears to have won the support of the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, in part because he bitterly opposed American intervention in Bosnia and understood that a humanitarian deployment in Somalia would make any U.S. move in the Balkans far less likely. The American decision to bomb the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 was due at least in part to the threat by the British and French to withdraw their UN peacekeeping forces -- a move that would have obliged the United States, as their NATO partner, to deploy troops to cover their retreat. Even in Kosovo, which looks like the most altruistic of this wave of interventions -- the British prime minister, Tony Blair, insisted at the time that NATO had intervened in defense of "its values, not its interests" -- the reality was far more complicated. It is true that the plight of the Kosovars did engage the sympathies of the Western public. But NATO acted as much because, after Croatia and after Bosnia, it had decided, however belatedly, that it had had enough of Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian nationalism and was determined to stamp out this ethnic fascist rebellion in the European backlands once and for all, as it did out of any deep-seated sympathy for the Kosovars.

Of course, this was not the way the story was presented in the media. Instead, each of these crises involved a return to the script of largely apolitical moral concern. The poor suffering Ethiopians for whom Bob Geldof had raised money through Band Aid and Live Aid (and that led an otherwise uninformed Western public to believe that what was taking place was a natural disaster rather than mass deaths caused by the Ethiopian government's policy of forcible resettlement) were replaced by the starving Somalis. They were followed by the suffering, besieged Bosnians, who were replaced by the martyred Rwandans, who in turn gave way to Bosnia again when NATO broke the Serbs in 1995, then by the Kosovars, and then the Timorese. But then, if you are a discerning television news consumer, you already know that serial monogamy is the international journalist's stock-in-trade. To say this is hardly to underestimate the power of the press in affecting the response to humanitarian emergencies. To the contrary, during the 1990s the foreign disasters the press homed in on were precisely the ones where interventions did eventually take place -- Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and East Timor.

Philip Johnston's narrative of the cumulative effect that press coverage of the Somalia crisis had on building a constituency for action is emblematic. "In September [of 1992]," he wrote, "a trickle of television reports and newspaper stories had become a steady stream of news coverage. By October the number of stories became a wave of media attention that lifted Somalia to a new level of international awareness and concern." The media, he concluded, "helped the world community care about Somalia."

The same trajectory could be traced in terms of the media coverage of Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and East Timor. And given the fact that the other twenty-three crises and dozens more humanitarian emergencies went largely unattended, the truth of Johnston's words -- for better and for worse -- is surely undeniable. The former secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who bitterly resented the Western media's attacks on his role in the Balkans, once remarked that CNN functioned as if it were the sixteenth member of the UN Security Council. To be sure, he exaggerated. To cite only the most obvious example, for all its efforts, an intensely partisan international press corps in Bosnia (I include myself) was unable to shame its governments into intervention to lift the siege of Sarajevo.

But Boutros-Ghali was also correct. The fact that the media paid attention to Bosnia -- that reporters were obsessed with the story and that editors back home allowed their obsession airtime and column inches, month in and month out -- kept the Bosnian story alive in the minds of people in Western Europe and North America. It was not enough, yet without it nothing else would have been possible. Bosnia was a special case in the sense that it was a war in Europe, where war was both easier for Europeans and Americans to identify with and was seen as the ultimate man-bites-dog story, because war was not supposed to happen in Europe in the 1990s. But a similar dynamic operated in Somalia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. There, too, the press's almost obsessional focus was what distinguished these particular fields of horror from all the other places undergoing similar miseries at the same time. For while Somalia starved, so did Sudan; while Sarajevo burned, so did Kabul. Only Rwanda, the third and last great genocide of the twentieth century, after the Armenians in 1915 and the Jews and Gypsies between 1941 and 1945, can be said, in its horrific way, not just to have been virtually a unique event in its time but to have been understood as such. (One of the ironies of international law is that the death of a million Cambodians at the hands of Pol Pot was not, strictly speaking, a genocide since it did not target a particular religious or ethnic group.)

It is easy to discern the limitations of the way television imparts information. And yet the fact that one can even be aware, in any approximation of real time, of the siege of Sarajevo, the Rwandan genocide, or the refugee exodus from Afghanistan is not just a recent phenomenon but an amazingly powerful one. It is true that the fantasy of knowledge awakening conscience is comparatively old. In 1899, Gustave Moynier, the first president of the Red Cross, wrote: "We now know what happens every day throughout the whole world...the descriptions given by daily journalists put, as it were, those in agony on fields of battle under the eyes of [newspaper] readers and their cries resonate in their ears..."

In fact, before the 1960s no one saw such images or read such descriptions until well after the event. Still, while Moynier, writing at the high-water mark of European optimism, could not have imagined that the twentieth century would become the era of total war, his para-McLuhanite intuition was nonetheless not wrong. It would just take another seventy-five years to realize it. The photographs of the Nazi concentration camp inmates after they had been liberated by Russian, American, or British forces are often cited as utterly transforming by people who saw them when they first appeared in newspapers or were shown in movie theaters. And yet these images were not disseminated until weeks after the Allied forces entered the camps. Only the camp inmates, the camp guards, and the Allied soldiers experienced the events in real time. You could not turn on your television set in May 1945, switch over to the BBC, and have a reporter say, "This is John Smith, BBC News, Auschwitz, liberated Poland," let alone watch the same reporter doing a "live" stand-up from the camp, one or two years earlier, while the Jews were being murdered by the millions.

I am not trying to be grotesque. But the point has to be made: The interconnectedness that we all now take for granted, the fact that it is possible for journalists to report live from the battlefield via videophone, or for those dying in the fire and smoke of the World Trade Center to call their loved ones on their cell phones to say good-bye, means that the basic terms of information have been transformed. Here is one example where the revolutionary nature of globalization is reality, not hype. Given the Nazi regime's obsession with secrecy and its bureaucratic efficiency, a reporter probably would not have been allowed into Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. But reporters did film and report from the killing fields of Rwanda in real time, just as they are likely to be able to do from every field of atrocity the future has in store for us. I do not believe that this means we care more now than we did in the past. But it does mean that the possibility of caring exists in a way that it did not before, if only because one is looking at events in real time rather than after it is too late to do anything about them. And it means that through that television, we, as representative First World citizens, can choose to expose ourselves to that world of suffering, injustice, violent death, want, and cruelty that is the lived reality for so many people on this planet.

It is to our credit, I think, that so many of us do not turn the page or flick the channel selector, however problematic both the quality of the coverage and the quality of our response to it. One does not have to have a simpleminded view of the press, or of the world for that matter, to see that this is an important advance. But how much of an advance? What does the message that there is a humanitarian imperative -- that when people are suffering, even if they are strangers, it is our collective obligation as human beings to come to their aid -- amount to in reality? I am not speaking here of the practical difficulties of mobilizing coalitions or lobbying to get governments to act, let alone the challenges of trying to deliver humanitarian aid properly in the field without making things worse, and being careful that humanitarianism does not come to serve as a fig leaf either for inaction or for other agendas. All those difficulties presuppose that we have understood what we have seen, and that this slice of human suffering to which we have been exposed gives us enough to go on to think and commit as well as to sympathize.

What do we actually see? It is one thing to be able to sit down, switch on the television, and be able to call up the world on demand -- from golf to genocide in a half-hour news program -- and quite another even to begin to come to terms with what we are seeing. The images are moving, yes, but usually they are also almost infinitely remote, like the spoken narratives of the reporters that accompany them. And unless they are repeated endlessly, as was the case in Bosnia, and Kosovo, and Afghanistan, they are almost impossible to take in. There you are in your living room, and wedged somewhere in among the politicians' squabbling, the car crash on the highway, the stock market report, and the sports is the news that a bunch of people in a place you've barely heard of are starving to death, or fleeing for their lives, or being shelled and sniped at. And unless it is your own country that is doing the shelling and the sniping, or perhaps offering the protection, or, as in the case of the United States in Afghanistan, a bit of both, how is it possible to remember and how is it possible to understand in any meaningful way?

Part of the problem is structural. Not only does television news have limited time at its disposal to air the stories that seem urgent, it has no time at all to present stories about humanitarian crises that might become urgent sometime in the future. Even in the best newspapers, such stories are usually buried somewhere in the inner pages. Journalists are engaged with the stories that have reached the boiling point. They rarely have the time to track Burma and Burundi, Angola and Afghanistan before they explode. So when something really atrocious takes place in such a country, something that even the most parochial news editor knows has to be covered, in effect the reporter must try in somewhere between ninety seconds and three minutes to give the entire history of the country, the reasons for the catastrophe, and the actual story he or she is covering to a viewer who is probably hearing all the names, places, and dates for the first time. What is surprising, when one thinks about it, is not that people understand so little but that they understand anything at all.

Critics of the press -- indeed, critics of the West more generally -- tend to forget this. It is as if they somehow imagine that the geography of central Bosnia, the hierarchies of Somali clans, the nature of ethnicity in colonial Rwanda, or the Christian-Muslim rivalries of the Indonesian archipelago, are elements of knowledge that are easily mastered. In the film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, the angry young hero reproaches his immigrant father for not being more politically militant. "I'm a professional businessman," the weary parent replies, "not a professional Pakistani." By the same token, it is perfectly normal, and even obligatory, for someone like me who spends his life writing about the Rwandas, Bosnias, and Afghanistans to know the respective roles in their respective countries of Paul Kagame and Patrick Mazimpaka, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, or Abdul Rashid Dostam and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Knowing who these people are makes it possible to understand what is happening in the countries and tragedies in question. But to name these names on television as if they were intelligible, or to listen to them as if one had the faintest idea of who they were? This would be a demonstration of the triumph of hope over experience if ever there was one. Because, like the father in that film, people are professional businessmen, or doctors, or laborers, or accountants, or housewives, not professional consumers of other people's tragedies.

Actually, despite the condescension that is often directed at them by people who are either professionally or affectively involved with wars and humanitarian emergencies, the television anchors and the newspaper editors do their best to communicate these almost incommunicable realities. Think again, if you can bear to, of Auschwitz. Let's suppose that my imaginary BBC reporter somehow could have gained entry and done a stand-up in front of one of the crematoria. How could he have made it real to people sitting in San Francisco or Houston? And what would the anchor have done after the story was over? In all likelihood, he would have done what anchors do now, which is look solemn and go to an advertising break before returning to focus on some domestic news story.

You may say that the Holocaust is the exception and that television's business-as-usual would not have taken place. Perhaps you are right. But only if you admit that the criteria include not simply the horror of the event per se -- does anyone think American audiences would have fixated on the Japanese slaughter in China in the 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II? -- but the horror of an event plus the fact that for whatever reason it concerns you. Nazi concentration camps would have concerned British or American audiences in 1942 because Britain and the United States were at war with Germany. But World War II was not the main thing on people's minds in Argentina or in Mexico in 1942. And in Asia, which had been at war for a decade, the fate of European Jewry would have been a tangential concern, just as the fate of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese murdered by Japanese forces in Nanking in 1937 was of no great concern to the American or Western European public. "They had other things to worry about" may be the most terrifying utterance in the language.

Yes, confronted by the reality of an event as catastrophic and epochal as the Rwandan genocide, perhaps a more ethically delicate society would turn reading the morning paper or watching the evening news into something analogous to going to a funeral. And given the abundance of horror in the world, a more precise analogy would be going to funerals in the middle of an AIDS epidemic. As I write, there are twenty-seven major armed conflicts taking place in the world; 1.2 billion people are living on less than one dollar a day; 2.4 billion people have no access to basic sanitation; and 854 million adults, 543 million of them women, are illiterate. One of the most important things that has happened over the course of the past fifty years is that the world has increasingly become divided into three parts. There is the small, underpopulated commonwealth of peace and plenty that is North America, most of Europe, and Japan; there is the part made up of Latin America, the former Soviet Union, China, and India, in which wealth and poverty coexist and where the future is unclear; and finally, above all in sub-Saharan Africa and an area stretching from Algeria to Pakistan, there is a vast, teeming dystopia of war and want whose future no decent and properly informed person should be able to contemplate without sadness, outrage, and fear.

The images from that world are moving. Even in the distracted context of television news, they have not lost their power to affect us. Michael Ignatieff was correct when he wrote that television images of humanitarian disasters and wars have contributed to "the breaking down of the barriers of citizenship, religion, race, and geography that once divided our moral space into those we were responsible for and those who were beyond our ken." As recently as the 1930s, it was only missionaries intent on saving souls and Communists intent on fomenting revolution who acted on the basis of an ethos of universal solidarity. Today, such notions are universal, or at least receive lip service almost universally. It could hardly be otherwise in an era when almost no international figure, no matter how tyrannical -- and indeed very few warlords of even the most unreconstructed kind -- would today come out in opposition to the secular religion of human rights. And it is more than just the sincerity of dictators that is at issue. The essential problem of how far human sympathy and solidarity can be expanded is more pressing than ever before.

It is not just the voyeurism with regard to the sufferings of others that television engenders (and against which Ignatieff rightly warned) that makes the experience of watching horrors like the Rwandan genocide or the refugee emergency in Afghanistan on television a far less certain path to solidarity than the ideologues of the globalization of consciousness pretend. Rather, anyone who continues to hope that the world, for all its horrors, can be made a better place through Ignatieff's "revolution of moral concern" in the West must confront the following question: Is it even possible for people who live in comfort to care deeply enough for people who do not to act to alleviate those sufferings? For it is not enough to watch television, be moved, and in especially tragic instances -- a Somalia, a Rwanda, an Afghanistan -- translate that emotion into a contribution to a charity or a letter to a politician demanding that something be done. By definition, such caring, like the televised images that so often engender it, is too selective, too inconsistent, and too intermittent to do much good. The crisis ends; the news goes back to being almost exclusively about the local, the quotidian, and the banal; and when the next humanitarian emergency comes, it is as if it is the first one ever to occur.

Yes, of course we in the West who live in such privilege should care more. It is right to do so, and we all know that. It is not as if, for all our comforts, we have forgotten how to care. When the World Trade Center was destroyed, there was no question of treating the event as just another news story. Understandably, for days the television networks ran no advertisements and focused on the attack, on the victims, and on the consequences. In the United States, at least, to watch television was to attend a funeral. But even in the United States, some semblance of normalcy returned within a matter of weeks. The soap operas, the sporting events, the stock market reports all began running as they had before, just as the government had urged. Even for those obsessed with the war in Afghanistan, unsettled by the downturn in the economy, and terrified by anthrax, the assumption was that sooner or later everything would get back to normal. And this was usually understood to mean a few months, or, at worst, a year or two. What eloquent testimony such confidence, misplaced or not, provides as to how reduced, even in the aftermath of the worst terrorist atrocity in American history, the imagination of disaster had become in the West by 2001.

For no matter how shocking and terrible the destruction of the World Trade Center was, and despite the insistence of the Bush administration that the United States was at war, this was hardly war in the sense that our ancestors understood the word. For people who came of age in the first half of the twentieth century, war was not a single strike that extinguished three thousand lives on one's own side, followed by a military campaign in which it was assumed that a far lesser number of one's own soldiers would die. The loss of thousands of lives would have been seen as the predictable result of any substantial battle. And such a loss would have been seen as a relatively small one at that, if not by American then by Western European standards. Anyone doubting this has only to remember that almost a million German and French soldiers died in the battle of Verdun in 1916. And twenty million Russians died in World War II. As for the destruction of buildings, to our grandparents and great-grandparents, destruction was not the fall of two towers, however tragic, but the ruin of whole cities. Think of Coventry and Rotterdam, of London during the Blitz; and think of Dresden, where on one night, February 13, 1945, at least twenty-five thousand people were killed and virtually the entire city was leveled. Above all, think, if you can bear to, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The miracle of our own time, a miracle that probably only the very old among us still fully appreciate, is that in Western Europe and North America such horrors appear to have become quite literally inconceivable. A person who lives in these countries inhabits the one tiny corner of the planet where war, hunger, and fear as lived realities have become -- or, as the generation that lived through World War II leave us, are rapidly becoming -- events one reads about in books. In this sense, Immanuel Kant's dream of a world of states in which perpetual peace reigned, while hardly the norm anywhere else in the world, has become part of the political DNA of the West. And so the gap widens between this Western world, in which the primacy of individual rights is taken for granted and in which peace is assumed to be the natural state of things (even though anyone who has read history knows that throughout all of it, war, not peace, has been the human norm), and that huge part of the world in which war is either an everyday reality or a looming threat.

It is this that makes the predicament of our emblematic television watcher, our Western everyman or everywoman, so complex. Let us assume the best intentions. Not only is the crisis in question difficult to understand, but the afflicted population is difficult to empathize with, as opposed to sympathize with -- a more abstract and less compelling reaction. To put it starkly, there is nothing about them, except the brute fact of their humanity, with which those Europeans or North Americans who in fact want to connect can easily connect. In other words, not only are we not in Kansas anymore, as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz, but we are not even in Bosnia, where the refugees were white Europeans. Instead, imagine that we are talking about Congo or Afghanistan. Though activists sometimes claim otherwise, it is at most only tangentially a matter of racism. In every sense, these tragedies simply take place at too great a remove. From the unfamiliar countryside or urban landscape to the unpronounceable names of the people, warlords and refugees alike, there is nowhere except in the rarified world of moral concern for the viewer to get his or her bearings.

And in any case, our television viewer is better than his or her prejudices. The sight of the starving babies in that refugee camp in eastern Congo or that column of refugees trying to flee from Afghanistan into Pakistan seems genuinely intolerable, particularly when our viewer contrasts their ordeal to his or her own comfort. And the sight may continue to resonate long after the television has been switched off. In this sense, the fleeting images and the oversimplified narrative that accompanied them have awakened a conscience.

It is no exaggeration to say that, over the course of the past thirty-five years, roughly since the Biafran crisis of 1967, this particular awakening of conscience, or solidarity, this "revolution of moral concern," has taken place in literally millions of homes all over the rich world and continues to take place.

That is the good news. But it also begs the question. For while our viewer's conscience may be alerted, what he or she has seen remains basically incomprehensibile. Where those who trumpet the revolution of moral concern go wrong is in assuming that sympathy somehow can be turned into understanding. And the one thing someone who has seen images of a refugee camp or a city being shelled on television has not done is understand, except in the most simplistic sense of understanding, that fellow human beings are at risk or are being harmed. Reporters may try to impart such information, but how much can they do in a couple of minutes? In any case, what is compelling about the image is the suffering, not the history or the political context. Indeed, faced with a starving child or a pregnant woman forced from her home, it seems callous, almost inhuman, to bring up politics or try to contextualize the disaster by going on about the events that led up to it.

And yet failing to do so is fraught with moral risks. The first involves misplaced sympathy or, to put it another way, sympathy that distorts understanding. Imagine, for example, that in 1943 a film crew had gone to film both the German soldiers at Stalingrad and the Russian defenders of the city. Both groups suffered horribly. But while these sufferings were humanly identical, they were neither politically nor morally identical. Morally, Stalingrad was a zero-sum game, and the defeat of the Germans, even if it meant their atrocious suffering, was a moral imperative.

Understandably, many people today find analogies to World War II and the fight against Nazism morally invidious. They see them as too extreme, and as inapplicable to the murky complexities of today's wars, in which right and wrong are often impossible to determine and where frequently both sides are monstrous. But in fact, the refugee emergency in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 exposed much the same moral dilemma. Facing defeat by the forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the people who committed the genocide -- the old Rwandan army and the Interahamwe militia -- fled into Congo (formerly Zaire) with their families. In all, they numbered almost two million, although of course probably no more than a few hundred thousand had killed. But then the average family size in Rwanda is eight people, so in all likelihood most heads of household among the fleeing refugees had committed mass murder.

The refugees suffered appallingly on their route of march out of Rwanda. Things only got worse once they crossed into eastern Congo and settled into vast refugee camps hastily set up by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The refugees were wracked by cholera and dysentery and a host of other infectious diseases. It was difficult to dig latrines in the hard, volcanic soil of the region, and there was little clean drinking water. Only the most heroic humanitarian effort, one that involved various UN agencies, private relief organizations, and the American and French militaries, managed to blunt the epidemics. And still some thirty thousand died. In humanitarian terms, this initial effort was an impressive achievement in preventing an even greater catastrophe. (What happened later in the refugee camps was more problematic.) And yet in political terms and even in a moral context in which humanitarian relief is not viewed as an imperative that trumps all other imperatives, it is possible to portray things rather differently. In a way, what had happened is comparable to what might have taken place had two hundred thousand SS soldiers taken their families out of Nazi Europe as it fell to the Allies to somewhere they could hope to be sheltered from retribution.

Of course, no such place existed in 1945 except for the few lucky Nazis who made it to Argentina and Paraguay. But the principle of what befell the Rwandans who had committed genocide is exactly the same. Their humanitarian needs, which were entirely real, were generally what captured the attention of the Western media and, subsequently, of the Western governments that mounted the aid effort in eastern Congo. Here was where the distortion of the way humanitarian stories had been covered since Biafra in the late 1960s all but guaranteed that what was going on would be misunderstood. What Western journalists, Western news consumers, and Western governments saw were innocent victims. How could it have been otherwise? In the humanitarian story, at least the kind of story promoted by the Philip Johnstons of the aid world, victims are always innocent, always deserving of the world's sympathy, its moral concern, and beyond that, its protection, even if that means killing in the name of protection.

Reality is elsewhere. Victims can be victims and not be innocent. We know this in our daily lives. But somehow the canonical narrative of humanitarian relief, and of that putative "revolution of moral concern," occludes that fact when it comes to those in need of humanitarian aid. Hence the befuddlement. In 1991, we had expected the Somalis to welcome us. Our interests and theirs were complementary, or so we supposed: they were victims, we were bringing relief. And those Rwandan Hutus in 1994 -- they had such desperate needs. If ever there was a victim people, it was they. So how could so many of them have turned out to have been guilty of mass murder? And then what of those other Rwandans, the Tutsis? Their relatives were the ones who had been murdered by the hundreds of thousands during the genocide. By any reckoning, they were victims par excellence. But if this was the case, how could they have become killers in their turn in 1996?

And yet of course they did, and not only in Rwanda. In reality, such stories have repeated themselves over and over again throughout the annals of contemporary humanitarianism. The reason for this is simple: The history of contemporary humanitarianism is only one aspect of contemporary history. And history is never the fairy tale of innocent victims, oppressive gunmen, and caring outsiders that the humanitarian narrative so often presents. In private, humanitarian officials debate these issues passionately. In the aftermath of the cholera epidemic in eastern Congo, for example, UNHCR held a meeting about whether to exclude the killers from the camps. As one of those officials, Fabrizio Hochschild, a veteran of Sudan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, would recall later, "In a perfect world, we would have screened people. The International Tribunal would have been on hand, and there would have been proper security. But we were alone, and our alternative was looking after people." And, he added, "Even the guilty need to be fed."

What Hochschild expressed was the humanitarian creed at its purest. And yet few humanitarian officials in eastern Congo at the time would have risked expressing such harsh truths openly. Most hewed instead to their fables of innocent victims trapped in a war and refugee crisis they had had no responsibility for creating. The distortion was, and remains, entirely understandable as a strategy. (On this score, little has changed in the world of humanitarian action since the Rwandan genocide.) If humanitarians had told the truth about Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Afghanistan, if they had come out and said publicly to their donors and to the general public through the media that here were places where the victims were not just "innocent women and children," to use the handy old sexist phrase, but were often killers as well -- the women too, especially in Rwanda -- would the public still have cared? Was its moral concern, whether or not revolutionized by television and the Internet, that sophisticated? It was hardly likely. As Jean-François Vidal, a leading official of the French aid group Action Against Hunger, or Action Contre la Faim (ACF), once put it, "Only compassion sells. It is the basis of fund-raising for humanitarian agencies. We can't seem to do without it."

In a sense, Vidal was being too hard on the aid agencies. For the reliance verging on dependency on these tales of blameless victims richly deserving of the help of aid workers and the money of the general public in the rich world was not simply a matter of money. It was a question of both morality and morale as well. Could the humanitarians themselves have carried on with what they were doing while really assimilating the somber sense of moral ambiguity that an accurate account of their effort in eastern Congo would have evoked? Perhaps the most sophisticated and the most insensitive among them could have pulled this off. But for many, probably even a majority, being constantly confronted by the fact that one was fighting to save the lives of murderers in all likelihood would have been too painful. They had not given up lives and jobs in the West to save the families of 1990s Central Africa's equivalent of the Nazi SS. Or had they?

Many writers have talked about the humanitarian trap. By this they usually mean the problem of aid prolonging wars, or giving great powers an excuse either for intervention or nonintervention. But the first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable -- in short, to sugarcoat the horror of the world, which includes the horror of the cost of a good deed.

Copyright © 2002 by David Rieff

About The Author

Photo by Megan Hustad

David Rieff is the author of eight previous books, including Swimming in a Sea of Death, At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention; A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis; and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. He lives in New York City.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 4, 2013)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439127278

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Los Angeles Times Book Review One of the 10 best nonfiction books of the year.

The Wall Street Journal A withering, thought-provoking study.

The New York Times Book Review Hardheaded, sophisticated, and urgent.

Time A ruthlessly lucid book...hard, intelligent analysis.

Nadine Gordimer A wake-up, shake-up for those of us who see unquestionable humanitarianism as the disinterested answer to conflict and poverty in our millennium world.

Brian Urquhart former Undersecretary General of the United Nations A Bed for the Night provides an excellent antidote to the hollow clichés and generalizations that often blur and distort the horribly real problems of helping the world's most afflicted people.

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