In early 2003, people started killing each other in Darfur, a region of western Sudan. The Darfuris rose up against the country’s regime. Then the country’s regime cracked down on the Darfuris. The crackdown became a massacre. Things had gone from the barbaric to the Boschian. Thousands died, then hundreds of thousands. Shock at the scale of the killing was compounded by its genocidal overtones. Darfuris regard themselves as Africans, but the Sudanese government, which is focused in Khartoum, a city in central Sudan, regards itself as Arab; the state is a relic of the colonial era, and it contains a fractious hodgepodge of peoples. Although the Darfuri uprising was ostensibly about resources—Darfuris felt the regime had forsaken the region—the ferocity of its suppression suggested something more primal. Old codes had been reactivated. The hodgepodge seemed to have given way to pogroms.
The killing in Darfur also suggested, to many observers, something familiar. “During the height of the conflict,” as Alan Wolfe recalls in his new book, Political Evil (Knopf, 352 pages, $27.95), “The Village Voice’s Nat Hentoff put the matter this way: ‘Of course this is genocide. It is also pure evil. Mr. Bush is not afraid of that word. Let him, right now—unlike Bill Clinton turning away from Rwanda—save lives in Darfur.’” Mr. Hentoff’s reference to Rwanda was meant to sting. Nine years earlier, in 1994, Rwanda’s ethnic majority, the Hutus, had tried to exterminate its ethnic minority, the Tutsis. As the slaughter of the Tutsis accelerated (“at a rate of 333¹/3 deaths per hour, or 5½ per minute, this genocide was the most intense in human history”), Western leaders temporized. Eight hundred thousand Africans would die. No one intervened. “It was as if thoughtful people the world over woke up from their long night of inaction and realized that despite repeated calls after the Holocaust never again to sit back and do nothing in the face of genocide, they had done exactly that,” Mr. Wolfe writes.
Still burning with this memory of omission, perhaps, Western commentators were quick to vent their indignation at the carnage in Darfur. “For nearly all those who became involved in efforts to save Darfur, such accounts of attacks by Arabs against Africans, the one determined to enslave, the other forced to obey, suggested a repeat of the Holocaust,” Mr. Wolfe writes. The existence of an “African Auschwitz” was duly proclaimed. The Sudanese Arabs were flagged as Islamofascists.
Such strong language proved an attractive vehicle for the cause. “Hollywood figures—especially Hotel Rwanda’s star Don Cheadle, but also Mia Farrow, Matt Damon, and George Clooney—played a crucial role in bringing the Darfur crisis to public consciousness,” Mr. Wolfe writes. A cottage industry of good intentions briefly took root. MTV sponsored a Darfur video game. Timberland produced an anti-genocide street boot. When Mr. Cheadle and John Prendergast published Not on Our Watch in 2007, “the manifesto of the anti-genocide campaign,” U.S. Senator Barack Obama coauthored a preface. A coalition of the high-minded had emerged, determined to atone for America’s remissness in Rwanda.
Yet the parallels with Rwanda were inexact. “The name ‘Sudan’ stems from the Arabic bilad al-Sudan, or ‘land of the blacks,’” as Mr. Wolfe observes, “and those called ‘Arab’ are just as black as those called ‘African.’” The case for genocide, it turns out, was not cut-and-dried. “Taking race in the Western sense of the term into account, the conflict in Darfur is not between races but within one,” Mr. Wolfe writes. “Taking it in the African sense of the term, the same conflict is not between two but among many.” The epithets “Arab” and “African” primarily connote distinctions of station and dialect, not skin color. “Africans” lived in rural areas, were farmers, came from peasant stock; “Arabs” were affluent, urban, the scions of nomads. Although race occasionally inflected the pattern of killing in the Sudan, geography—regionalism—first set that pattern. What happened in Darfur may have been evil, but it wasn’t genocide. It was a chaotic counterinsurgency.
The drawing of fine-grained distinctions in gruesome situations can seem niggling. Those who refrain from applying the genocidal tag to the violence in Darfur are frequently scorned as nitpickers. The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, as usual, is typical. When asked if the bloodshed satisfied the criteria of genocide, Mr. Levy, an occasional visitor to Darfur, replied, “There is a sort of discussion similar to the discussion of the sex of the angels in the Middle Ages.” Mr. Levy’s point, presumably, was that such nuances are academic compared to the awfulness on the ground.
But Mr. Levy is wrong, or at least crass; misnomers can be mortally consequential. As Mr. Wolfe points out, “As long as the rebel groups thought there was a chance of Western military intervention—as happened in Kosovo—they had every incentive to keep fighting.” The persistent characterization of the fighting as genocidal nourished delusional expectations in its actors. The Darfuris awaited a deus ex machina; the Sudanese were roiled by neo-Colonialist paranoia. The embellishments of the anti-genocide movement had inadvertently given “both sides reasons to keep fighting.”