The Horn's Dilemma

By Genoways, Ted | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

The Horn's Dilemma


Genoways, Ted, The Virginia Quarterly Review


In spring 1985, with everyone's expectant parents sweating and wedged into the auditorium chairs, it was my appointed task to kick off the school's year-end performance by plinking out the opening strains of "We Are the World" on the music teacher's Casio keyboard. My classmates swayed on the risers, meaningfully intoning every line, doing their best to mimic the video we'd all seen a thousand times on MTV. For close to two months, the song had been inescapable - and we all knew the complicated story of its creation.

It began in October 1984, when British rock singer Bob Geldof saw a BBC broadcast on the spreading famine in Ethiopia, in which presenter Michael Buerk described the suffering of malnourished children - their slatted ribs showing, their stomachs distended - as "the closest thing you get to hell on earth." Geldof had a pure impulse: record a hastily-penned song ("Do They Know It's Christmas?") with British Isle pop stars and then send the proceeds as famine relief. It was such a simple idea that Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, and Michael Jackson took it up on this side of the Atlantic with "We Are the World." By that summer, the efforts were combined for a daylong telethon concert: Live Aid.

Many years later, Bono, the lead singer of Irish rock band U2, would recount how he had gone almost directly from Live Aid to spend six weeks at a food station in northeastern Ethiopia. "In the morning," he recalled, "as the mist would lift, we would see thousands of people walking in lines toward the camp, people who had been walking for great distances through the night - men, women, children, families who'd lost everything, taking their few remaining possessions on a voyage to meet mercy" But one morning, a man approached him with a boy in his arms. The man was asking Bono to take his son back to Ireland. "Will you take my son?" he was saying. "Please, he would be a great son for you." It was that moment, Bono says now, that he understood that Westerners bore a greater responsibility than making occasional donations, that you couldn't save the world "with a few records and concerts."

But back in my junior high auditorium, we were swept up in a cause - and it carried over to Live Aid, Farm Aid, Hands Across America, and a string of other outpourings of the late Reagan era that felt good but accomplished little. As recently as last year, former employees of Band Aid were arguing over just how much aid money wound up in the hands of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, then working to overthrow the Ethiopian government. Band Aid's former field director insists it wasn't more than 20 percent. One of the rebels, who told the BBC that he used to attend meetings with charity workers and pose as a merchant, estimated that more than 90 percent of aid money went astray.

All of this came rushing back to me in August, when the devastating story and photographs by Jeffrey Gettleman and Tyler Hicks appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The article led with the news that the anti-government Islamist group al Shabaab, which controls much of southern Somalia outside of Mogadishu, was preventing famine-stricken refugees from fleeing across the border into Kenya. Al Shabaab had set up a cantonment camp, Gettleman reported, where they were imprisoning displaced people - and leaving "more than 500,000 children on the brink of starvation." But what we could do was less clear. The United States had tried intervening in Somalia, near the outset of its civil war, culminating in the Battle of Mogadishu, during which eighteen American soldiers were killed in action, including several Black Hawk crewmembers, whose bodies were dragged through the streets. The incident effectively ended American interventionism in Africa for a generation.

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