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More words about words

April 24, 2009

Yesterday, President Barack Obama spoke at an annual memorial to the Holocaust at the U.S. Capitol. According to my count, the President eloquently spoke 1,491 words at this year’s “Days of Remembrance” event, which did not escape the notice of the Save Darfur Coalition’s intrepid observers. According to a post on the Save Darfur Coalition’s BLOG FOR DARFUR:

Today, President Barack Obama spoke at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum among men and women who survived the Holocaust and heroes that saved lives from being lost. His words gave the highest emphasis to words we have heard echoing across the country this month:

“But we must also remember that bearing witness is not the end of our obligation – it is just the beginning. We know that evil has yet to run its course on earth. We have seen it in this century in mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground; in children used as soldiers and rape as a weapon of war…

Today, and every day, we have an opportunity – and an obligation – to confront these scourges. To fight the impulse to turn the channel when we see images that disturb us, or wrap ourselves in the false comfort that others’ suffering is not our problem. And to instead make a habit of empathy; to recognize ourselves in each other; and to commit ourselves to resisting injustice, intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take – whether confronting those who tell lies about history, or doing everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place in Rwanda, and those taking place in Darfur. That is my commitment as President…

We find cause for hope as well in Protestant and Catholic children attending school together in Northern Ireland; in Hutus and Tutsis living side by side, forgiving neighbors who have done the unforgivable; in a movement to save Darfur that has 1,000 high school and college chapters in 25 countries, and brought 70,000 people to the Washington Mall – people of every age, faith, background and race united in common cause with their suffering brothers and sisters half a world away.

Those numbers can be our future – our fellow citizens of the world showing us how to make the journey from oppression to survival, from witness to resistance and reconciliation. That is what we mean when we say ‘never again.’”

Stirring words that are worthy of our close attention. But note the SDC blogger’s set-up: “His words gave the highest emphasis to words we have heard echoing across the country this month.” Since the words that have been heard echoing across the country were not stated, one is left to assume that they relate to this month’s Genocide Prevention Project/SDC-proclaimed (yet in no way officially recognized) Genocide Prevention Month. Thus, I’m left to assume that “genocide” would be a much echoed word this month, and a word necessary to get an A-grade from the Save Darfur crew. So let’s do a quick Control-F and Find the number of “genocide” occurrences in Obama’s speech.

Searching…searching…GOT IT! The answer is: Phrase not found.

That’s right, Obama chose not to invoke the term “genocide”. How can an organization committed to promoting the idea of ending an ongoing GENOCIDE in Darfur and has made a substantial resource investment in GENOCIDE Prevention Month let Obama’s “small omission” slip by them? And more importantly, why did Obama decide against using the G-word? Does he want to set the “action required” bar a bit lower for activists — mass atrocities, war crimes, crimes against humanity? Or does he recognize the potential for political reconciliation within Sudan and other war torn areas, which will necessarily require distasteful deal making with accused war criminals?

As a former community organizer, President Obama has shown himself to be more practical than idealistic, more comfortable seeking political reconciliation than aggressive retribution. He studies the lessons of the past but focuses his energies on the here and now. Those are traits members of the vaunted “constituency of coscience” would be loathe to ignore, and wise to embrace. Again, words matter. And nobody has learned that lesson better than Barack Obama.

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