Opinion

The Africa mirror

America has struggled with her identity, values and morals from the first day settlers to the New World arrived on these shores mores than 400 years ago. Tensions with Native Americans turned into ethnic cleansing on President Andrew Jackson’s watch. The Trail of Tears is one of those stains on the American conscience. Jackson is lionized by Democrats as a populist hero; never mind that by the standards set by the Geneva Convention in the post-Holocaust era, he would likely have been an indicted war criminal.  To be certain, slavery and the Middle Passage left scars on millions. The Civil War was about humanity as much as it was about “states’ rights” or “economics.”

With the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln set forth a new path for the United States of America. He ensured that the Constitution was the prism through which America’s future would be judged. With a few words, and the stroke of a pen, nearly four million slaves would realize freedom — if not equality. Lincoln’s words, in part, noted that all persons in the bonds of slavery “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

In the 21st Century, Americans enjoy unparalleled liberty. We do not live in a utopia but we are free. More than anywhere else, equality thrives. Despite the hyperbolic tone pervasive in our domestic political discourse. But, as Robert Frost would note, there are miles to go before we sleep.

From Utah to Florida, evil still manifests itself. The faces of young girls and boys appear on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC or our local affiliates almost every day. Victims of kidnap, rape, murder with distraught families. We grieve with them, then change the channel because that sort of “reality TV” is too excruciating to watch.  It’s not American Idol, or Ridiculous Housewives of whatever-town-USA. It is unredacted reality. Children and young women are brutally exploited, raped, tortured and murdered all across the globe every single day.

Confronting evil is not supposed to be easy. It requires patience, diligence, commitment, unwavering character and strength. Kim Stickney and her 16-year-old daughter, Bobbie, stayed in the home of a man who had brutally kidnapped, raped and tortured Bobbie for a month after the crimes were committed because she had no money and nowhere to go. Once they were free, they reported the entire chain of events. The perpetrator, Marc Clifton Bryant, faced numerous charges including kidnap, rape, and torture.  Bobbie took the brave step of allowing her name to be revealed, and probably saved lives because of it. Others would not experience evil, as she had. From America’s Most Wanted:

Bryant confronted Bobbie one day after school, and despite her denials that she didn’t have a love interest, his doubts persisted. According to police, an enraged Bryant dragged Bobbie upstairs with plans to torture the truth out of her.

Cops say Bryant handcuffed Bobbie to the wooden headboard of her mom’s bed, then scarred her face and arms with a screwdriver and a blowtorch.

“I had given up,” said Bobbie. “I had told him the truth and he wasn’t hearing it.”

Still not hearing what he wanted, cops say Bryant dragged Bobbie to the nearby bathroom and dunked her face in a filled tub until she was nearly unconscious.  Bobbie says he then pulled her up and began to choke her with a pink towel.

When Bryant realized that Kim would soon be home, he panicked. According to police, Bryant dragged Bobbie to his blue passenger van and drove her to the outskirts of town. Bobbie said Bryant was going to burn her again, but he couldn’t because he had left the blowtorch at home.

Instead, Bobbie said Bryant beat her again, then drove her to his workplace where he had planned to abandon her.  When Bryant saw a police car nearby, he drove off to a dirt road where he handcuffed Bobbie to the rear of the van and made her run in her bare feet for several yards.

He then pulled Bobbie back into the van, and according to cops, drove home and raped her in his bedroom.

“He then came out of his trance,” Bobbie said

Bryant was convicted of kidnapping, rape, torture and other charges. He cut off his electronic monitoring device, fled Utah and became a fugitive. Now in prison, he was apprehended in Florida because of anonymous tipsters who watched America’s Most Wanted.  He’s in prison because, in a nation of laws, justice matters. Enforcement matters.  As a people, we recognize threats and counter them. Foreign and domestic. We protect and defend each other.

Across the Atlantic, brutality is more commonplace.  The bloodiest war since World War II rages in Congo, where according to UN estimates 45,000 die every month.  Since President Obama took the oath of office, that is roughly 850,000 dead.  If you look to Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, and other nations plagued by warlords, rebel groups, Islamic extremism, weapons trafficking, and piracy are de rigeur. In Congo and Sudan, as in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, rape is a preferred tool of the genocidaires. Rape is now considered a crime against humanity and a tool of genocide, as defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.  During the Rwandan Genocide, where more than 800,000 people were slaughtered, rape was used systematically.  How many raped, tortured and dead will it take before President Obama stops his anti-Bush rhetoric long enough to do the right thing?

Let us look back for a moment.  It was an American, former ambassador-at-large for the Office of War Crimes Issues Pierre-Richard Prosper, who prosecuted Jean Paul Akayesu for genocide and crimes against humanity. He won the first conviction under the 1948 Convention that declared rape a tool of genocide. It is Americans and our allies who, while we may not be the world’s policeman, are certainly the world’s conscience. We embrace equality, liberty, and individual rights.

Today in Congo, women are being raped. Young girls and boys are being raped and tortured. If your reaction is one of physical revulsion, that is appropriate. To stand against evil requires we move beyond our base instincts, beyond impulse, and into grace and strength.  Peter Daou wrote, “What kind of creature rapes children?” That’s a question we must answer. We can’t look away, give permission to our fellow human beings to be degraded, demoralized and stamped out.

Every victim sees the face of evil.  They remember the smell of their rapist’s breath, the salt on their skin, the stench of hate. They remember every touch, their skin crawling like gooseflesh. They remember how the blood felt when it spilled from their bodies. They remember the sounds, the degradation and their own silent screams. They remember the feel of broken branches, or rotting carpet, or dirt, or the faint smell of death coming. They remember asking for redemption. Salvation. Freedom. They remember the piercing of their flesh, the wounds, the searing pain of having their soul broken.

Inevitably, politics and policy must rise up to meet our lofty, sometimes idealistic goals of protecting the innocent. This is one arena where former President George W. Bush excelled. He advocated for investing in Africa, in aid projects that would bring potable water, basic medical care, vaccines, and the wide distribution of antiretroviral drugs to more than three million people with HIV or AIDS. He believed in maternal health projects. Was it perfect? No. But it was a start. The human rights community had a partner.

Understanding that ending the desperation and extreme poverty in Africa would foster growth, both economically and culturally. If people are strong, they can fight evil. If we embrace their dignity, we can stand together with our brothers and sisters and defeat evil.

Recently, Ashley Judd visited Congo. She expressed how she felt like what happens to the women, the rapes, are in a way happening to her. She is correct. They happen to all of us. Because when we allow the cancer of evil, of extremism to spread unabated, we are authoring the next chapter. We are choosing our own quality of life.

Instead, we must look to voices of reason. Voices of courage and truth. People who stand up for women everywhere. For our young boys and girls.  Foreign and domestic. John Prendergast, whose work on ending the conflict mineral trade in Congo will save lives and bring hope to people bereft of it.  Mia Farrow’s love of the Sudanese people has inspired thousands to action, to activism and involvement. Save Darfur leads a coalition of nearly 200 organizations, influencing legislation and elected leaders nationally.

There are other heroes. Women like former First Lady Laura Bush, whose continued efforts to help women in Afghanistan builds bridges between women in-country and here in the United States. People like Tommy Christopher, the White House correspondent for Mediaite.  When Playboy magazine published a list of conservative women ripe for a “Hate-F#$!” it was Christopher who led from the front. It was an unconscionable act, and he was fired from AOL News’ Politics Daily site for saying so. He defended me and women who appeared on the list in a way that was so honest, so real, and so, dare I say, masculine — it marks one of two occasions that redefined my belief system. How do we serve our Constitution, our nation, and each other? How do we balance domestic responsibilities with national security?  Foreign affairs?

President Obama addressed the American people on August 31, 2010, from the Oval Office. He declared an end to combat operations in Iraq. But he also made it clear why he is not keeping the promises he made about ending the genocide in Darfur, or ending the conflict mineral trade that fuels the genocide in Congo:

“As the leader of the free world, America will do more than just defeat on the battlefield those who offer hatred and destruction, we will also lead among those who are willing to work together to expand freedom and opportunity for all people.

“That effort must begin within our own borders.  Throughout our history, America has been willing to bear the burden of promoting liberty and human dignity overseas, understanding its link to our own liberty and security.  But we have also understood that our nation’s strength and influence abroad must be firmly anchored in our prosperity at home. And the bedrock of that prosperity must be a growing middle class.

“Unfortunately, over the last decade, we have not done what is necessary to shore up the foundation of our own prosperity. We have spent over a trillion dollars at war, often financed by borrowing from overseas. This, in turn, has short-changed investments in our own people, and contributed to record deficits. For too long, we have put off tough decisions on everything from our manufacturing base to our energy policy to education reform. As a result, too many middle class families find themselves working harder for less, while our nation’s long-term competitiveness is put at risk.

“And so at this moment, as we wind down the war in Iraq, we must tackle those challenges at home with as much energy, and grit, and sense of common purpose as our men and women in uniform who have served abroad. They have met every test that they faced. Now, it is our turn. Now, it is our responsibility to honor them by coming together, all of us, and working to secure the dream that so many generations have fought for -the dream that a better life awaits anyone who is willing to work for it and reach for it.”

Essentially, the president implies that due to the money spent on the Iraq War — which pales by comparison to the cost of his ambitious domestic agenda — America will no longer export the ideals of freedom and human dignity. It wasn’t the first time he dismissed extremism. Perhaps his life experiences have desensitized him to violence. After all, I hear Chicago is tough. Not Congo or Sudan tough. But tough. Sarcasm intended.

But the president is not alone in his sentiment.  With UN troops being routinely prevented from helping innocents victims in Sudan, and aid workers being refused entry, Secretary of State Clinton offered her assessment on Sudan. But really, it summarizes the Obama administration’s overall approach to human rights thus far, via The AP:

She cited a beefed up U.S. diplomatic presence in Southern Sudan and the addition of a new special envoy to focus on the referendum.

“It’s really all hands on deck,” she said.

Clinton said that the U.S. is trying to prepare Sudan to peacefully let go of the south.  She said: “We’ve got to figure out some way to make it worth their while.”

She added that Southern Sudan would also have to make accommodations to Khartoum’s concerns to ensure a peaceful referendum.

If this is “all hands on deck,” then it will be incumbent upon the next session of Congress to return the ship of state to liberty, equality and justice for all.

Elizabeth Blackney is best known as a media & communications strategist to private sector clients, US Senate & Gubernatorial campaigns, as a political emissary, confidante and commentator.