11/23/2011 09:40 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2012

The Man Who Died of Complications

I've been sent a photo of a man missing two-thirds of his head. He lies on rocky ground in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. The picture was taken by a fellow Nuban on his cell phone, moments after a Sudanese armed forces bombing raid killed his friend.

Although the wound was caused by a piece of shrapnel, it is more accurate to say the man died from complications. The more complicated the cause of a conflict, the less likely it is that the media will cover it or the international community will apply the diplomatic pressure necessary to stop the killing.

If the Sudanese man's village had been struck by an earthquake or a mudslide, he and his family would have been much better off. Television cameras would be there, recording the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and humanitarian aid would rush to the site of the natural disaster.

Sadly the same does not apply when it comes to complicated situations like Sudan, where unarmed civilians are being wiped out by a vengeful regime, bent on extinguishing all internal opposition. The architects of this suffering know we have other priorities, and when they face no consequences, they carry on with impunity, secure in the knowledge our words amount to nothing.

Our diplomats and politicians base their response by calculating how far our national security or business interests coincide with our lofty speeches about human rights and democracy. The more complicated the roots of the conflict, the easier it is for our leaders to appease the belligerents. They fall back on statements amounting to, "They're all as bad as each other in this fight." Such moral equivalence conveniently ignores situations such as Sudan, where a regime is killing unarmed civilians on a distinctly un-level playing field.

This also happened during the Bosnian war when our brave humanitarian agencies kept the Muslims alive so the Serbs could kill them at their leisure. Yet, it took us years to address the political causes of the conflict, by which time 100,000 innocent bystanders had been slaughtered (1). Once the international community showed the Serbs it was united and serious, the Serbs ran away. Sadly, it seems our diplomats and leaders learned few lessons from this inglorious episode.

So it is in Sudan. President Bashir, who seized power in 1989, has been cleansing his country of those who disagree with his plan to create a pure Arab and Muslim nation (2). His definition of Islam ("to cut, to stone, to kill") (3) is not one many co-religionists would rally around, given the choice. However, he has been successful in using poor but biddable proxy groups to do his dirty work.

When the international community chastises Bashir, he says the conflict is complicated, involving ancient ethnic hatreds. To the Arab world, he explains that imperialist Westerners are once again interfering because they hate Muslims and Arabs: and he points to our recent track record to make his case. (4)

Of course it isn't just the racism of Bashir's regime that explains why sundry regional conflicts have dragged on for decades. Like all efficient architects of genocide, Bashir has manipulated people who previously lived in peace to start seeing each other as different because of their ethnicity or faith. Milosevic did it in the former Yugoslavia, and politicians in the West use the same 'reframing' to demonize illegal immigrants. It's an age-old strategy: when you're making a hash of your economy, find a scapegoat.

Sudan's problems also involve the fight for resources, the centralization of power in Khartoum, and the displacement of nomads by the southward spread of the Sahara. But for those who reject Bashir's miserable, mono-cultural vision, and the accompanying massive human rights abuses, the task is to demystify and thereby to engage people everywhere to defend the ideal of pluralism and tolerant coexistence.

This purpose is not helped by some regional experts who seem to take pleasure in telling the world that the causes of Sudan's war are too complicated for mere mortals to understand. Their explanations provoke a massive glazing over of eyes. Like self-important handymen or lawyers, they make their work sound more sophisticated than it actually is.

There is a simple bottom line in Sudan: unarmed civilians continue to be killed by a ruthless regime. Instead of speaking with one voice, the international community holds back from enforcing a stack of UN resolutions that might give President Bashir pause for thought. We prevaricate, fearful of using soft power like targeted economic sanctions, all the while lecturing the world about human rights and democracy. It's not that complicated after all: we are hypocrites, and Bashir has blood on his hands.