Some 38, maybe 39 years ago, I received a phone call from someone I had vaguely known. She was frantic. "Biafra," she cried, with reason enough, I agreed, to be frantic. "Poets, poets, we must save the poets of Biafra," she went on. Which is where she lost me.
After the birth of our son in 1968 I had become involved in what was loosely called the Biafra movement. The provoking moment for me was very simple: we were on our bed with three-day old Jesse and there on the tube were three, four, five year olds, gaunt in face, bloated in belly, starving. The next morning I enlisted in the American Committee to Keep Biafra Alive. Recalling now that moment from the genocide against the Ibo people of Biafra brings back what are frankly bitter memories: the fiction of the territorial integrity of United Nations member states as a shield against rescue of those damned within these member states. There were enough international relief efforts, all right, but what was collected and purchased, food and medicine, mostly, was warehoused in Sao Tome and Fernando Po, two small islands off the coast of west Africa, never to be delivered to Biafra because that would violate the, yes, territorial integrity of Nigeria. Many good people were just plumb afraid to intrude on a black intra-African dispute. Of course, some day, Nigeria will itself implode and maybe the brainy, industrious, morally conscientious and tolerant people of Biafra will have their freedom...and the opportunity to show what a true black African democracy is like.
I've rambled. So back to the poets. I didn't understand why we had to rescue Ibo poets but not Ibo musicians, farmers, gas station attendants, mothers, fathers, children. In every disaster, there are those who wish to save whom they think the most deserving.
All of this came to mind when I read in Tuesday's Times the special pleading by Samantha Power for U.N. personnel and other, mostly non-governmental (NGO) aid workers posted to countries beset by terror. Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the Baghdad murder of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the subject of Power's recent hagiography, Chasing the Flame, and 21 other international public servants. Who were their killers? The same bloodthirsty men (and women) who target soldiers, civilians and just anybody who happens to be in a market, a bus, a mosque almost anywhere in Iraq and the rest of the Muslim crescent. I don't mean to be churlish but the fifth anniversary of the murder fest, although a slim excuse for a meditation on the world's responsibility to protect its would-be protectors, was the author's last chance to gin up some interest in her book. There are, after all, only so many book emporia and Unitarian churches you can go to with it.
Ms. Power notes really quite out of the blue in her piece that five years minus a week after the slaying of Viera de Mello and his comrades, forces of the Taliban took down in Afghanistan (as if these were the only victims in the interim) "three female educators and a driver from the International Rescue Committee," a group with a slightly different record than other relief organizations since it was organized by Albert Einstein to save Jewish and other victims of Naziism. The I.R.C. was thought to have gone slightish rightish since it also salvaged the lives of people in West Berlin whose food was blockaded by the Soviet Union and of refugees from Hungary in 1956, Cubans escaping the Castro regime after 1960, Chinese fleeing the Mao regime, Asian nationals from Uganda, and the avalanche of human wreckage from Paraguay, Guatemala, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, Armenians and Jews from the U.S.S.R., refugees from the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan all the way on through to the genocides in Yugoslavia and Rwanda to which the United Nations itself (with Kofi Annan in the lead role) was complicit. (The I.R.C. long ago had on its staff the former literary editor of The New Republic. His name was Varian Fry.)
And now also back to Ms. Power's special pleading for U.N. officials and other aid workers. I am sure they are estimable men and women. As it happens, on the very day when Power's op-ed appeared in the Times, there was a dispatch (from Paris) reporting that "a suicide bomber" (the Times refuses to calls such individuals "terrorists," oh so gentle) had killed in Algeria "at least 43 people, mostly civilians and young people who had been waiting to take an entrance exam" for a police academy. At least 11 other utterly innocent Algerians were cut down by two car bombs today. How many thousands of ordinary men and women and children have been murdered in the streets and in railroad station and on their way to prayer since the attack on the office of the U.N. in Baghdad five years ago? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands. Power is still mourning her friend and his comrades. Fine. He is no more dear to me, and shouldn't be any dearer to you, than one of the young academy applicants killed yesterday east of Algiers.