Acts of God and the Acts of Man

Turning Away

The catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean has prompted the greatest international response since the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. As with the Ethiopian crisis, pop stars are front and center. NBC will air a benefit concert this weekend featuring the likes of Elton John, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Wonder. Governments have pledged at least $5.5 billion in assistance, and individuals and corporations have promised an additional $2 billion.

The response is gratifying; I hope and pray that it sets a lasting precedent. At the same time, I wish that we cared about the victims of the acts of man as much as we do for the victims of the so-called “acts of God.”

“Acts of God” are what insurance companies call natural disasters — beyond our control and, thus, beyond legal redress.

While natural disasters may shock us, the man-made catastrophes often claim many more victims. In the short time since BreakPoint first went on the air, the death toll from human evil has been in the millions — far exceeding that from the tsunami. For example, the conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia alone claimed at least 200,000 lives.

The new movie Hotel Rwanda reminds us of the genocidal killings that claimed at least 800,000 lives in that country in 1994. And how many Americans know that Somalia, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Zaire, among others, have also experienced man-made catastrophes whose victims number in the hundreds of thousands?

Then there’s the Sudan. The world shrugged at comparable death tolls in that country: victims of a twenty-year-plus effort to impose Islamic law on a largely Christian population in the South.

What makes this indifference so maddening is that, after the discovery of Nazi concentration camps, the world swore that it wouldn’t happen again. Genocide became a “crime against humanity”; yet for the most part, the world has stood silently by.

Why? Partly, it’s a question of “out of sight, out of mind.” Public reaction, for better or for worse, is driven by images in the media. Just as images of starving children prompted the Ethiopian response, coverage of the tsunamis on CNN and Fox moved people to action.

Unfortunately for their victims, perpetrators of genocide know better than to let trucks marked “CNN” roll into their killing fields, even if the press tried to — which few did in the Sudan. And without arresting images, a media-driven culture finds it easy to ignore even the most reliable eyewitness accounts of atrocities.

The other part of the answer lies in politics. As Clifford D. May, a foreign- policy expert, recently wrote, “governments and international organizations can do business . . . with regimes such as [Sudan’s]. Nobody can do business with a tsunami.” Political and financial considerations, like Sudan’s oil deposits or Liberia’s diamonds, are powerful incentives to ignore the slaughter.

Sudan has been a major campaign for me and many other Christian spokesmen since the late nineties, and this week a deal was struck ending the war. So we can get results if we work at it. There may not be much we can do to prevent natural disasters, but there’s plenty we can do about the man-made ones. We don’t have to wait for the media to tell us.


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