The Barbaro Syndrome

Last spring, the race horse Barbaro was a contender for the triple crown. He had won the Kentucky Derby and was the favorite to win the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. He was a beautiful, spirited animal with an ability to run like the wind. Seconds after leaping out of the gate at the start of the Preakness, running hard in the middle of the pack of nine horses, Barbaro veered to the right and pulled up, limping, tossing his head up and down. Jockey Edgar Prado was immediately off the horse and trainer Michael Matz ran onto the track, seeing that the colt was favoring his right rear hind leg. All would soon learn that the horse had broken it in three places. As Barbaro was led from the track and loaded into an ambulance, his leg in an inflatable cast, fans in the audience of 118,000 broke into tears.

The agony felt by those who watched the colt break down was only the beginning. Suddenly a collective concern swept the country. You Tube was full of Barbaro videos and images, set to music. At another site, 14,000 candles were "lit" in his honor. People posted heartfelt messages on message boards expressing hope and admiration for Barbaro, followed his daily progress as his owners and a phalanx of veterinarians, led by Dr. Dean Richardson, fought to repair an injury that would, ordinarily, have caused the horse to be immediately put down. News coverage blanketed those first days and weeks and signs, votive candles, cards and flowers crowded the entrance to Barbaro's home farm. One fan said he believed the horse saved his marriage. Other fans were beginning a fund raiser while a woman insisted that Barbaro's example helped her get through a family tragedy. Children from across the country wrote the horse countless get well letters.

Of course, those close to the horse's recovery knew that the odds were not in his favor. Eight months after the Preakness, Barbaro was put down.

Now here is the puzzler: publicize on CNN a photo of a small child dying of dehydration and starvation in the arms of its mother in the region of Darfur, in western Sudan, and the reaction will be something far different from that elicited by a horse with a broken leg. How to understand this aspect of the human condition. Is it that we have become inured to human suffering, while finding a small kitten trapped in an abandoned well wrenching?

To be told that during the eight months that Barbaro was being treated with all the care that modern veterinary medicine could muster, thousands of peaceful, land-tilling people were bombed and burned out of their homes by thugs working for the Sudanese government (known as Janjaweed), the women brutally raped and dismembered, children and babies killed, elicits what? A silence born of what? Indifference? An abiding sense of helplessness? Where is our outrage? Know that the Janjaweed use rape as a weapon, understanding that culturally raped women are considered damaged, unclean and will be ostracized.

Since the inception of the war in western Sudan (2003), specifically in Darfur, close to half a million people have died, and 2.5 million people have been displaced. Some project that another 350,000 could die from disease and starvation in refugee camps, now filled to capacity and spilling over into Chad. The United Nations, the organization designed and now mandated to respond to such a humanitarian crisis, has played for time and done little else, despite the U.N. Security Council resolution 1706, which called for a 17,300 peacekeeping force to supplant or supplement an ineffectual African Union Mission.

The voice of the world community has been restrained, if not silent altogether, though we are watching genocide take place against a backdrop of world leaders wringing their hands while insisting: "after Rwanda, never again." Think of how infrequently the word Darfur has been spoken by President Bush or other European leaders. Deplorably, Russia and China continue to do business as usual with the Sudanese government, buying oil while supplying arms and ammunition in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. The Sudanese Air Force continues to conduct patterns of indiscriminate bombings in Darfur and eastern Chad using ground attack jets and helicopters.

During the recent presidential debates there was not one question asked of the Democrats or the Republicans about this humanitarian crisis that knows no end. One moderator did ask the Republicans how they would feel about having Bill Clinton back in the White House. And so the band plays on.

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