If there is a crisis in a remote place, and governments, newspapers and aid agencies start to agitate for ‘action’, you naturally begin to suspect that much of the information you are being fed is false. When Tony Blair starts talking about intervention, your suspicion turns into virtual certainty. This is not necessarily because journalists, officials, agencies and Blair are ignorant of the facts (although ignorance is invariably a contributing factor); it’s because the tragedy and the publicity exist in different universes. On the one hand, there is how things are — the grim, confusing, recalcitrant reality of events; on the other hand, there’s how the tragedy is presented, how it is packaged and sold, as a news story, as a political cause, as a fund-raising opportunity. Before long, the publicity takes on a life of its own, following a predictable cycle of distortion leading, very often, to excitement, impatience and, finally, error.
The latest crisis is in Darfur, western Sudan, where some 30,000 civilians are said to have died, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Blair wants to help these people, by using troops if necessary, and he is backed by the Tories. Almost any article you read about Darfur will tell you that the conflict there is between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’, and that the ‘Arabs’ are the guilty party. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘The Sudanese government and the Arab Janjaweed militias it arms and supports have committed numerous attacks on the civilian populations of the African Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups.’ This is a convenient version of events in the world after 9/11: it plays well in the US where, for many, the word ‘Arab’ is a codeword for ‘terrorist’. The House of Representatives has unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Bush administration to call what is happening in Darfur ‘by its rightful name: “genocide”.’