Nothing concentrates your mind out in the back roads of rural Africa like having a kid from some rebel army hold you up at gunpoint with a large Russian-made assault rifle.
Rory Anderson, a senior Africa policy adviser for World Vision, a Washington-based Christian aid and development organization, knows that experience. It happened to her and a carload of colleagues in 2003 in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo near Uganda's border.
"Suddenly I was both frightened and brokenhearted," Anderson recalled in an interview with me. "He was a kid. He could have been my baby brother. I could have turned him across my knee and spanked him. Except that he had that gun. And the power."
Fortunately, the long and tense face-off ended peacefully. The kid with the big gun noticed the markings on their Land Rover. It identified Anderson and her companions as non-government aid workers. He let them pass.
Another ugly scene was averted.
With memories like that, Anderson told me she had no problem believing the bizarre cruelty that less-tutored viewers might find hard to believe in the new movie "Blood Diamond," an adventure-in-Africa thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Having seen the film in a special preview, Anderson said she appreciates its "realism."
With its Hollywood star power, "Blood Diamond" also offers a welcome public education in the illegal "blood diamonds," or "conflict diamonds," trade. Those are the UN's terms for uncut gems that rebel militias illegally traffic in to pay for wars they often wage against innocent civilians.
Sierra Leone, with its well-publicized amputations of men's, women's and children's hands and feet, looked like a war but it was also a big jewelry heist, a big and bloody fight for diamond mines and their easy-to-hide, easy-to-smuggle gems.
Indeed, it is important that Americans, who buy more than half of the world's diamonds, know where the glimmer on their pinkies or earlobes may be coming from. The Sierra Leone war depicted in the movie officially ended in 2002. But similar battles for illegal diamonds continue in remote areas of Congo and Ivory Coast, among other troubled spots.
Many people of conscience would like to know whether the diamond they are purchasing is helping to fund more atrocities, but they don't have the foggiest notion on how to find out.
As a lobbyist, Anderson helped to write the Clean Diamond Trade Act of 2003 that set up the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme to clean blood diamonds out of the international trade.
When the Kimberley system is working right, you should be able to ask your jeweler to provide certified evidence that the gem in question is clean "from factory to finger," as the activists put it. Unfortunately, a September report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office confirmed that smugglers easily penetrate the supply chain with diamonds, which are small, portable and invisible to airport metal detectors.
And too many jewelers still give you a blank stare if you ask for diamond certification. When Amnesty International and Global Witness two years ago surveyed 246 stores in 50 cities, 110 shops refused outright to take the survey. Of those that did, only 27 percent said that they had a policy on conflict diamonds, only 13 percent provided warranties to their customers as a standard practice and 83 percent of respondents said customers rarely or never even asked.
Since 99 percent of the industry's $60 billion annual trade is believed to be legal, aid groups like Global Vision are not calling for a boycott of all diamonds. Most residents of diamond-mining regions are desperately poor and need the income and development that legitimate mining can bring.
The best action for the new Democratic-led Congress to take would be to make sure the existing blood-diamond legislation is fully implemented, as the GAO recommends. Spot checks, audits, data-sharing, receipt inspections and other safeguards along the international supply chain have not been fully enforced. They need to be.
And, besides writing congressmen, the biggest pressure consumers can apply is at the retail level. Ask for certification before you buy that diamond. If the store can't provide it, find one that does. Major jewelry chains say they already are getting the message.
Finally, think of it as a blow against terrorism. In fact, it probably is. Evidence gathered by the United Nations Special Court in Sierra Leone indicates that some of the diamond trafficking in that country fed the coffers of Al Qaeda, among other terrorist organizations, before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. To paraphrase an old song, diamonds can be a terrorist's best friend too.