Rwanda, as the world sometimes remembers, was drenched in blood in 1994 as the Hutus slaughtered between 500,000 to a million Tutsis. Somalia, as the world also sometimes remembers, is an ongoing disaster. Many have died there, many have fled and many are eking out an existence in horrible camps. Iraq and Afghanistan are plagued by violence. While these are fairly well known horrors, to those who know history, they are but the latest installments in episodes of chaos and blood that have plagued humanity.
In the case of Somalia, the West (well, the United States) tried to intervene and establish some degree of order. This, as everyone who saw Blackhawk Down knows, did not turn out well. Today, Ethiopian troops are trying to maintain order in the remains of the country. Not surprisingly, they are meeting with little success. The United States seems to lack the desire to go back into that mess and perhaps rightfully so. After all, what sane person wants to risk being murdered and having his corpse dragged through the streets by a cheering crowd of the very people he came to help?
In the case of Rwanda, the West failed to act. With the events of the battle of Mogadishu fresh in the minds of many Americans, the idea of sending Americans to risk death because yet another country was tearing itself to bloody shreds was hardly appealing. Whether the West should have acted is a matter that has been intensely debated.
On one hand, it can be argued that moral decency requires that we (Americans) act to do what is right. Genocide is an obvious evil, so we should have acted. Naturally, if we had done this, some would have shaken their heads at American imperialism and the thought that America was once again trying to play world police.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the people of a country are fundamentally responsible for their own order and that other countries cannot be morally expected to make up for their failures. If the people cannot create a functioning government, it might be the harsh reality that they are getting what they deserve. Further, each people is supposed to have a basic right of autonomy. They should be free to decide their own fate-perhaps even when that fate is chaos, blood and death. Finally, the West has long been criticized for taking the approach that it is the force of order and civilization in the world and thus has the right (or the duty) to act in this manner. Hence, the West should stay out of such matters and let people kill each other if that is what they want to do.
This position does, obviously enough, seem devoid of compassion. After all, it can be argued, the people who tend to suffer the most are the powerless and they cannot be held responsible for the failure of a state in which they had little or no input. To leave them to suffer and die would be an act of moral evil.
This brief discussion does show two of the basic moral points. The first point is that letting people suffer and die is clearly not morally acceptable. The second point is that people are morally accountable and have a basic right to autonomy. One problem is balancing the two: doing the right thing without violating the principles of autonomy and accountability. There are also the practical problems: just how does one go about rebuilding countries from political and social ruin…and how does one pay for it?