Dienstag, Januar 16, 2007

Understanding the Rwandan Massacre...

Why my interest in Rwanda and the Rwandan massacre?

Not because of personal friends involved or the like, but because it is something that unfolded under the eyes of the world and is not unlike the Darfur tragedy currently unfolding.

It also underscores the banality of evil. Evil is a hard concept in our relativistic world. After all, so the sophists, one man's evil is another man's virtue, and while people shouldn't hurt other people, anything goes otherwise. We saw it in Germany with the cannibal: his claim that he didn't commit a crime was based on his fantasy that it wasn't a crime when he had the victim's permission. And the mere fact that there *are* internet forums where such things are discussed is an indication that evil is very much alive and well today.

Here you can read more: Dalrymple makes a good point. But first of all: philosophers usually don't concern themselves with evil, unless they are moral philosophers, and moral philosophy is about as popular in modern philosophy as theologians are ( i.e. not very), unless, of course, they are left-wing moral philosophers ranting about the imminent establishment of a theocratical fascist state in the US.

What is, then, evil?

Evil is a slippery concept. I'll go as far as to take the Heideggarian analogy with being itself: we don't know what it is, we can't describe it simply, as it is something that is in and of itself indescribable. To paraphrase US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on pornography: I can't define it, but I know what it is.

First of all, evil is contextual. Evil has to be viewed in context with what the alternative is in terms of behavior at that point in time. If a child sees a dog who has been run over, breaking its legs, that childs' actions may be good, indifferent or evil. Good might be rescuing the dog and having it operated on; indifferent might be to simply go on walking by, and evil might be to poke at the dog's broken leg with a stick in order to make it howl. But would be pulling a gun and shooting the dog, putting it out of its misery, be evil? These are all contextual questions that need to be understood within the world in which the actions took place.

But there are absolute standards upon which one may act. We know them as imperatives: a Doctor's primary moral responsibility is "To Do No Harm", and he swears a hippocratic oath to indeed do no harm. The child in my constructed example behaves wrongly when that child pokes at the dog with the broken leg, but we can give a child the benefit of a doubt because that child may not know any better: while this is an explanation, it is not an excuse, and obviously the child has not had a moral upbringing that enables it to choose between right and wrong.

Evil is the sheer joy of doing wrong. The willful knowledge that your actions are morally wrong, but with the willful knowledge that you either don't care or you actually enjoy doing that which is wrong.

Rwanda was, in Dalrymple's words, the most efficient slaughter in human history. Rarely have so many been killed by so few with such little effort, is what he saying: I'd venture that the death camps of fascism and communism were more efficient, but that is a different category entirely.

Dalrymple writes:

In that slaughter, in the space of three months, neighbours killed without compunction those with whom they had been friendly all their lives, only because they were of the different, and reputedly opposing, ethnic designation. They used no high-tech means, only clubs and machetes. Women and children were not spared; husbands of mixed marriages killed wives, and vice versa. The participation of the general population in the slaughter was its most remarkable feature: usually in mass murder, it is the state that does the killing, or rather the state's agents, since the state is an abstraction without an existence independent of those who work for it. Hatzfeld, the African correspondent of the French left-wing newspaper, Liberation, went to interview some of the perpetrators a few years after the genocide. They were friends who took part in the murder (if that is not too slight a word for it) of 50,000 of the 59,000 Tutsis who lived in their commune.

Here we have a clear view of what happened: the collapse of the state; the lack of a common moral compass that would have prevented the people taking part from doing what they did. Dalrymple sees the book from which it is taken as one of the better ones dealing with the moral problem of evil, but one that mystifies the author, as evil mystifies any decent and moral person.

For three months, the men would get up, have a hearty breakfast, gather together, and then go on hunting expeditions of their former neighbours, who had fled to the nearby marshes. They would hack anyone they found to death; and then, when the whistle blew in the evening for them to stop their 'work' (they regarded it as such), they returned home, had a quick wash, had dinner and socialised in a jolly way over a few beers. Their wives would be - for the most part, though not universally - content, because Tutsi property was thoroughly looted, and distributed according to the individual efficiency and ruthlessness of the killers. One of the most haunting things in this book, if it is possible to pick anything out in particular, is that many of the victims did not so much as cry out when caught by the murderous genocidaires: they died in complete silence, as if speech and the human voice were now completely worthless, redundant, beside the point. I have often wondered why the people went into the gas chambers silently, without fighting back, but I suppose that when you witness absolute human evil committed by the people with whom you once lived, and who, at least metaphysically, are just like you, you see no point in the struggle for existence. Non-existence, perhaps, seems preferable to existence.
The murderers were pleased with their work, they thought of all the corrugated iron roofing, cattle and so forth that they were 'earning' by it. They had never been so prosperous as during this period of slaughter and looting. Unaccustomed to eating meat very often (the Tutsi were pastoralists, the Hutu cultivators), they gorged themselves upon it, like hyenas finding an abandoned kill in the bush. Very few were their pauses for thought.

The next question that must now be addressed is this: what were the French doing here?

It's one thing to realize that your policies were wrong, that your actions were mistaken, that what you did was, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, wrong and that you would've decided differently if you knew what you now know.

It's another one entirely of actively aiding and abetting evil. Which is what the French did in Rwanda, and my question remains: these are the people that the US is supposed to look to for guidance?

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