We should be doing more

Posted: May 28, 2003 12:00 AM

It's entirely possible -- even probable -- that a hundred years from now, people will look on the America of today as being full of cowards and villains. But not for the reasons usually offered by those who already think America is an evil nation.

Those people, overwhelmingly on the left, think America has been wrong pretty much whenever and wherever it has done good in the world. To them, the Iraq war was just the latest example of imperialism and cynicism on the part of greedy and/or racist elites, and, therefore, the brave American men and women who risked, or gave, their lives to topple the Iraqi regime were on a fool's errand.

Those who hold this view, though, are the real fools, and not worthy of serious attention. No, what I mean is that in a century, maybe two, people will ask why America didn't topple more regimes, destroy more armies, protect more people the way we did in Iraq.

The philosopher R.G. Collingwood once said, "Every new generation must rewrite history in its own way." This may sound like moral relativism, but he was right. New events change our understanding of the past.

Sept. 11 forced us to look at the history of the Middle East in a new light, while the fall of the Berlin Wall made the Bolshevik revolution recede in relevance. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism was once background noise, but now it's the drummer setting the beat for a new age in global affairs.

But, like the dog who didn't bark, it's sometimes worth asking what else we're not paying heed to. The loudest din we aren't hearing is in Africa. Over the last decade, a symphony of suffering has been playing, and we've been almost entirely deaf to it.

In the last five years, 3.3 million Africans have died in the Congo from warfare. In Sierra Leon, children have their arms hacked off in order to teach political lessons. In Rwanda, a country about the size of Maryland, a million people were slaughtered, mostly with machetes in nearly the blink of an eye.

Every day more Africans die from AIDS than perished in the Sept. 11 attacks. According to a BBC documentary, every day a teacher in the Ivory Coast dies from the disease.

In almost every respect, Africa is in a different time and place than the rest of the world, and is getting worse every day. In 1970, 76 percent of the world's poor lived in Asia while a mere 11 percent lived in Africa. Now, it's the other way around: Two-thirds of the world's poor live in Africa while 15 percent live in Asia.

The life expectancy of a child born today in Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zimbabwe is less than 40.

Of course, Africa's not alone. All one has to do is read even the briefest description of life in North Korea, where something on the order of 10 percent of the population -- 2 million people -- has been starved to death to know that Africa doesn't have a monopoly on suffering.

Indeed, North Korea fits much better our Hollywood-style understanding of Nazi-like cruelty and suffering. Under Kim Jong-Il, unknown numbers of humans are kept in a forced-labor gulag. Sun-ok Lee, who escaped one of the camps, testified to Congress last May that prisoners who fail to meet work quotas or memorize the president's New Year message are put in "punishment cells," tiny hovels designed to make sitting or standing impossible.

"(I)t is a day of great fortune," she told Congress "if a prisoner finds a rat creeping up from the bottom of the toilet hole. The prisoners catch it with their bare hands and devour it raw, as rats are the only source of meat in the prison."

Of course, if you get caught eating your toilet rat, you are punished even more.

Now, contrary to the propaganda of the left, it is not America's fault there is so much suffering in the world. Indeed, were it not for America's vigilance in the Cold War and the leadership of our example, there would be far more suffering. And President Bush's new plan to spend billions fighting AIDS in Africa is a noble effort.

But it's also the case that someday people are going to look back on the historical record of today and ask why Americans didn't do more.

The Civil War wasn't just about slavery, World War II wasn't fought to end the Holocaust and Saddam wasn't toppled solely to stop the barbarity of the Baathists. But in the aftermath of such efforts, the moral arguments swamp all other considerations.

Someday Hollywood, or its equivalent, is going to make movies about the horrors of Africa and North Korea taking place right now, and people like you and me are going to be stunned that so many good and decent people didn't do more to stop it.