The killing began 20 years ago this April. April 4th to be exact. It lasted for a hundred days, and when it was over, 800,000 Rwandans, the overwhelming majority who were Tutsi, were slaughtered in a frenzy of extermination that surpassed in its rate of killing the Nazi genocide. But in the case of Rwanda, the killing was not carried out via the high tech means of the gas chamber, but face to face with machetes, knives, clubs armed with metal spikes, and yes by gun shot, too.
The Rwandan genocide was not unique. It was but one episode in the twentieth century which has been called by some “the age of genocide.” The numbers of victims of genocide and other mass atrocities perpetrated in the last century is mind numbing. A million and half Armenians killed by the Ottoman Turks, Almost two million Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge, a crazed group bent on turning Cambodian into a primitive agrarian society. Two hundred thousand Kurds massacred by Saddam Hussein, who was happy to use poison gas on his own people. Almost 200,000 Bosnians killed by Serbs, the largest slaughter on European soil since World War II. A quarter of a million Darfurians in western Sudan, a rampage which still goes on. And, of course, the greatest genocide of the last century, the Holocaust, which systematically attempted to exterminate every Jew on earth, and succeeded in killing two thirds of European Jewry – six million – and an estimated five million others. Here was the best educated, technologically advanced, and highly cultured civilization the world had ever known, a nation that revered Goethe and adored Beethoven. And where did all that civilization go? It was dedicated to killing the largest number of people, at cheapest cost, in the quickest period of time.
These events are well known to educated people. But there were far more examples of mass killing that are barely known, or appear as footnotes. How many people know of the killing of up to 65,000 members of the Herero people of South West Africa by the Germans in 1904? We hear of Darfur, but what of the Sudanese civil war between north and south that killed almost 2,000,000? Between 1965 and 1967, the Indonesian army killed up to 500,000 supposed communists. And soon after, other Nigerians slaughtered up to 3,000,000 of their fellow Ibo countrymen. When East Pakistan broke in two to form Bangladesh, perhaps 3,000,000 Bengalis lost their lives to violence in that succession. If Hutus massacred Tutsis in Rwanda, just prior to that, Tutsis killed perhaps 200,000 Hutus in neighboring Burundi. Remember Idi Amin? A half a million killed at the hands of that madman.
By this time the numbers shade into a mass and cease to shock. And there were other mass atrocities that I won’t mention, only to say that the killing continues. I would be remiss if I did not mention that in the past eleven years, 5,000,000 human beings have lost their lives in Congo, the largest death toll in warfare since World War II. It goes on, but it is shamelessly underreported and the world essentially does not care.
The capacity of human beings to kill each other, unique in the animal world, asks us the question, what kind of beings are we? How can these things occur? In 1961, the philosopher, Hannah Arendt covered the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Two years later she produced a series of five articles for the New Yorker, based on her coverage, which was later turned into a book. The conclusions Arendt drew from observing Eichmann outraged a large sector of her readers, and more than 50 years later, they still do. Most people assumed that Eichmann was a sadistic monster, a type of immoral freak without conscience. But Arendt came to exactly the opposite conclusion. The only thing exceptional about the architect of the Holocaust was how normal he was. A faceless bureaucrat, not much different from bureaucrats found anywhere. He was, in Hannah Arendt’s words, the embodiment of “the banality of evil.”
But why the controversy over Arendt’s conclusions? Assuredly one of the reasons is that most people would have been comforted had she found Eichmann to be exceptional, a monster. By so doing it would have allowed the rest of us to conclude that we are not like him. We could rest assured that we could never possibly do such a thing. But Arendt’s findings, by implication, impressed upon her readers the extraordinarily inconvenient and disquieting truth, that all of us, given the right circumstances and influences, could indeed commit monstrous deeds. In other words, the capacity for evil is built into the human condition, into all of us. This does not mean that all of us, given the circumstances, would, in fact, commit acts of horrendous evil; only that the difference between us and those that do is not as great as we would like to believe. And we can never be confident that there is no difference at all.
But we are left with the very difficult and agonizing question of how people can turn on each other with such savagery. It is not beyond my imagination to begin to understand how through rage, hatred or opportunism, one person can murder another. But it seems to me to defy understanding how people, in some cases, who shared the same neighborhoods, who grew up side by side, could, under requisite conditions turn on their neighbors and kill them in huge numbers, with great abandon, with seemingly less remorse and reserve than one would swat a fly. How could a German father, lovingly tuck his own child into bed to the tune of a lullaby after he returned from work having killed thousands of other people’s children in gas chambers or impaled them at the end of a bayonet?
Such questions are not easy to grapple with, and the answers not easily found. But, I contend, that in our violence strewn world, they are among the most important questions we can ask.
In my address of April 6, I will ask them, and attempt to provide some answers, which, of course, can only be speculative. The title of my address is “How Can People Do This to Each Other? Rwanda, Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities” I hope to see you then.