A French journalist named Jean Hatzfeld has devoted his life to special correspondence and war reporting. Born in Madagascar after his parents fled the Nazis, he went on to cover wars in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Soviet Union, even injuring himself under gunfire while working in Sarajevo. His talent as a journalist is amazing, but beyond that, he has also written the most fascinating book I’ve ever read: “Machete Season.”
“Faced with the reality of genocide, a killer’s first choice is to be silent, and his second is to lie,” writes Hatzfeld. The book interviews and follows a group of 10 Hutu men who lived and worked together all their lives in a small village in Rwanda. This community remains as they share the same prison and similar sentences for murdering their Tutsi neighbors during the genocide of 1994. The Rwandan genocide is appalling not just for its scale, but also for the specific nature of mass murder enacted. Neighbors killed neighbors, soccer players killed teammates, husbands killed wives; the spree was reliant upon popular participation. With anti-Tutsi propaganda permeating the airwaves and minimal centralized organization, men of varying ages and backgrounds took to the marshes with their machetes.
Hearing the voices of the killers of Rwanda as they squirm and omit and almost certainly lie to Hatzfeld is amazing. They are humanized. There is an empathy established, not in the sense that any reader can agree with these men, nor even understand why they committed these crimes. Rather, as a reader you see that these men are just that: men. Their guilt, their embarrassment and their frantic self-preservation are very real and to some degree identifiable.
This is novel. There’s always an odd, almost ironic, characterization of the people caught up in genocide. The victims are dehumanized by their oppressors. But in turn the oppressors become less than human to all spectators. Nazi propaganda during the Holocaust depicted the Jews as a race of rats, separate and below Aryans. When the Serbs carried out ethnic cleansings in Bosnia in the 1990s, the Muslims were portrayed as a savage threat, breeding like animals. Yet to the American observer, these atrocities weren’t committed by people. The Serbs and Nazis and Rwandans are monsters and dogs, beasts of prey, to us. This doesn’t make these actions acceptable, but provides some logical basis for their occurrence.
The imprisoned Hutus spoke carefully in Hatzfeld’s book. These men were in prison; their guilt had been well established. But their accounts still sought to resemble humanity, to prove they were more than the monsters that the world expected them to be. They spoke of the altered mores of 1994 Rwanda; the Tutsi victims were not people, but rather “inyenzi,” or “cockroaches.” They weren’t teachers or farmers. They were no longer neighbors. This characterization allowed the nation to adopt a perverse morality; killing a Tutsi meant purging your nation. It was the right thing to do.
Initially, the nationalized propaganda didn’t completely dehumanize the Tutsi people. No fiery radio broadcast can prevent you from seeing that it is a real, live human you’re attacking with a machete. And in fact the Hutu men spoke of spurting blood and haunting eyes with their first kill. However, each consecutive murder made the act feel more and more natural. An individual murdering Tutsis could see hundreds of other men doing the same. The killers saw nothing bad happen to themselves, their families or any Hutu, and so the new national mantra was reinforced: “Tutsis are nothing more than cockroaches.” The ease with which people became able to kill is terrifying.
Here it is all too clear that drawing the analogy between an animal and a race of people is dangerous and destabilizing. And theirs is not a unique case. The speeches that named Darfur civilians “black donkeys” fueled and furthered violence in Sudan. Consider any genocide in human history and you’ll find dangerous, animalistic rhetoric.
But the ability to dehumanize can be positive in other contexts. Acts of aggression, of murder and rape and violence, shouldn’t be considered human. Yes, it’s dangerous to attribute the perpetrators of oppression a feral psyche. It can lead to indifference and apathy and prevent the appropriate intervention. But when it comes down to it, the ability to identify that a certain type of behavior, although human, doesn’t belong in humanity is invaluable.
Discriminatory violence continues to be a reality. Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president-elect, is being charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for bankrolling ethnic violence. Pashtun-speakers in Karachi are murdered, often with little follow-up or investigation. And Rwanda remains haunted by its recent past. It’s crucial that people are able to recognize what behavior is unacceptable for human beings, and hold people, communities and nations to that standard. Monstrous behavior is unacceptable in any day, in any age.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.