Apr 24, 2008

Violence, War, and Human Nature in light of the Rwandan genocide

(originally written 25 March, 2008)

Below is an excerpt from Jean Hatzfeld’s Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak (translated from French, 2005, Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

As I have been reading books on the Rwandan genocide of 1994, especially this book on Hatzfeld’s interviews with a number of the killers from the town of Nyamata, I have often felt so emotionally sobered to the point of feeling sick to my stomach. Such topics are brushed aside too easily--I reflect upon the quote by Jennifer Connoley’s character in "Blood Diamond" about certain human tragedies aired in the news being lost in a few minutes between sports and the weather.

The quotes below offer thoughts regarding violence, war, and essentially human nature perhaps. Though a student of history, people, whether they like history or not, should and must take the time to reflect occasionally on these matters. It is our responsibility as we are the leaders and people of future societies, cultures, faiths, and nations.

First a quote within the book, as a preface to a chapter, by Primo Levi, a Jewish scientist and Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz (specifically, his book The Drowned and the Saved quoted by Hatzfeld on page 52).

"Thinking back, with the wisdom of hindsight, to those years that devastated Europe and in the end, Germany itself, we feel torn between two judgments: did we witness the rational development of an inhuman plan, or a manifestation (so far unique, and still poorly explained) of collective madness? A logic bent on evil, or the absence of logic? As often happens in human affairs, both possibilities of this alternative coexisted."

The second quote is from Hatzfeld himself, and at the end he quotes one of the Rwandan killers he’d been interviewing. Read the book, it’s remarkable how normal the killers were, how new to killing (the most sobering chapter being "The First Time" i.e. kill), and how casually they did their "work.":

"All genocides in modern history have occurred in the midst of war — not because they were its cause or consequence but because war suspends the rule of law: it systematizes death, normalizes savagery, fosters fear and delusions, reawakens old demons, and unsettles morality and human values. It undermines the last psychological defense of the future perpetrators of the genocide. The farmer Alphonse Hitiyaremye summed it up in his own way: ’War is a dreadful disorder in which the culprits of genocide can plot incognito.’" (54)

Thank you for taking the time to read and reflect.

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