June 13, 2005

The Slippery Slope to Mass Murder

Today, on dKos, Kevin Lyda had a diary about how when the Nazis came to power, they were not yet mass murderers. The horror came later after one and then another barrier dictating human morality was breached and the Nazis came to think of their targets as inhuman. It was a powerful piece with some wonderful comments. And it made me want to resurrect this piece I did last February for the American Street.

Can It Happen Here?

Recently I saw the incredible Hotel Rwanda, a movie about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It was a harrowing movie, one that was very effective in bringing to life the horrors of that time. And one of the worst stories it tells is how the world stood by while the Hutus slaughtered some 800,000 of their fellow countrymen in a brief one hundred days.

The movie also told the story of Paul Rusesabagina, an educated moderate Hutu, married to a Tutsi woman, who found himself responsible for the lives of over 1200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during that horrendous period. He started out looking to save his family. But as events grew increasingly alarming, a larger circle of people looked to him for protection at the 4-star hotel where he had been left in charge. Using the many chits he earned by years of looking out for the powerful and well-connected in his job at the hotel, he found the courage to take all of them under his protection and to lead the entire group to safety. As one reviewer wrote, watching this movie, we are moved to wonder if we would have the courage that Paul did and we are intensely glad that there are people like Paul to reaffirm our faith in humanity.

A small, honest, emotionally complex film, Hotel Rwanda simultaneously destroys and reaffirms your belief in the intrinsic goodness of man. This is our world - cold, dark and unrelentingly cruel, but if you can push back the tears in your eyes long enough, you'll be amazed to see that compassion exists within even the blackest shadows of humanity.

Unlike most historical dramas, Hotel Rwanda isn't a film that you "owe it to yourself" to see. It's a film that you will want to watch, one that will grip you and touch you and amaze you with a cast that is very passionately pouring itself into every frame of this story. We can only hope that we would be as brave as Paul Rusesabagina under similar circumstances, and we can only wish that every film was as perfect as Hotel Rwanda.

Nevertheless, the story of the horrific massacre is something that haunts me even days later. What leads people to do such things to other people? Is it possible for something like that to happen here? Sadly, the answer to that question is yes. As Stephen Holden's review in the NY Times says, this film does a masterful job of showing how this could happen anywhere.

"Hotel Rwanda" radically downplays the actual gore, which is observed either through a fog or from a distance. Bodies are strewn everywhere, but the streets don't run with blood, and no hideous mutilation is shown. Even the beatings seem tentative. Still, the movie does its job. You are left with the uncomfortable suspicion that if the conditions for such a perfect storm of hatred were right, a similar catastrophe could boil up almost anywhere.

Underlying the tension and drama of the film was the omnipresent talk radio, which effectively used demagoguery to incite the Hutus into believing that the Tutsis and moderate Hutus were the enemy. And once the slaughter began, the broadcasters coordinated the hunt for people that had escaped the initial rout. Using terminology that dehumanized their victims ("you can smell the cockroaches") and building a case that the Tutsis deserved their fate, hate radio created an environment that inflamed the anger of the Hutus who had long felt oppressed under the colonial era.

Via James R MacLean, we find that the perpetrators of the massacre felt justified by their acts. James reviewed When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and Genocide in Rwanda and found:

The most startling feature of the book is the notion that the Rwandan genocide was part of a relentless pursuit of justice on the part of the perpetrators. As the quote points out, the massacre was carried out by huge shares of the population; in many cases, this can be laid to fact that the intensively organized Rwandan Republic was ably to use "snowball coercion," in which a mob forces those whom it encounters to choose between collusion and death; the members of the mob must continue to show their enthusiasm for killing or else they themselves will be killed by other members of the mob (who are all under the same dilemma). Such mobs typically have a core of militants, but typically these are not essential once the killing is underway: the conscripts typically understand that they must kill others who do not show sufficient zeal, or face the same fate themselves.

So once the slaughter started, the perpetrators of the violence sought to pull in others as accessories to the crimes, thus, spreading the hate and the killings throughout the society. The instigators believed that they would be protected from retribution and responsibility by sucking in the tentative, but not yet fully compromised observer. Every person they pulled in to become a killer assured them of their goal of "cleansing" their society because those who were not part of the killing would be too frightened to fight back and those who had been seduced by the hatred would not be capable of backing away from the abyss in which they had stepped.

Hatred breeds more hatred, and the incessant hate from the radio fueled the fires that led to one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. The bloody and violent period will mar Rwanda for generations. How do you live peacefully with your neighbors when you know that they participated in this slaughter? And how do the Hutus who were seduced into this evil affair live with themselves today?

Can it happen here? In every one of the ugly and vicious genocides of the 20th century, the genocide was the culmination of relentless demagoguery and increasing polarization that allowed the demagogues to reach for total power. Demagogues are not interested in power sharing. They are not interested in tolerance which they see as weak. They are only interested in having total control and total say in the world they wish to create.

Once more, can it happen here? So I ask, has it already started? The loudest voices on the right are clearly ratcheting up their language. On the right we find people like Ann Coulter who says "I think a baseball bat is the most effective way these days" to talk to liberals. Watching her on the talk shows, it isn't too hard to believe that she would enjoy taking up a bat. Or consider how Grover Norquist compared Democrats to neutered pets:

"Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they've been fixed, then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful. They don't go around peeing on the furniture and such."

Norquist's language is designed to dehumanize his opponents. Or consider the number of right wing pundits who have decided that liberals are not only traitors, but are now the same as terrorists.

Remember these are spokespersons for the right. And don't forget that many of those who watch Fox or listen to Limbaugh believe the lies they hear. These spokespersons are becoming more dismissive of "liberals" and getting bolder in their threats. And as David Neiwart wrote today, the far right extremists have also been emboldened by the example of these spokespersons.

We are living in a badly divided America that is being egged on to give way to the cleansing fires of bigotry, hatred and intolerance. Every day the threats and intimidation level against those who fail to support the President is raised. Why the President himself said, "If you are not with us, you are against us." Now it is clear, this message is for Americans as well. And it leads one to wonder: if another terrorist attack happened on American soil, what would be the response then?

So, you tell me: can it happen here?

Posted by Mary at June 13, 2005 10:47 PM | Philosophy | Technorati links |


I'll never get tired of saying that the time to be outraged is when the very first body turns up. That right there is when you know there's a problem. When the second one turns up, you know there's a pattern.

Just imagine how much better the world would be if people got angry over the brutality itself, instead of waiting for the casualty count to determine whether or not to give a damn.

Posted by: natasha at June 15, 2005 12:18 AM

I continue to re-read this post almost every day to remind myself of what we, as a nation, are up against. After seeing the crazy reaction to Sen Durbin's comments I am truly afraid for my country.

Posted by: Laura at June 16, 2005 08:00 PM