The Color of Evil

Writer’s note: this is an essay I wrote a few years back after viewing on YouTube a program devoted to the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Like most Americans, I followed that atrocity with a mixture of confusion and horror. Confusion about what could or should be done at the moment, and horror at what was actually taking place. Eventually my prevailing emotion became shame, for the failure of my country and the United Nations not only to take any effective action but to refuse to act at all.

THE COLOR OF EVIL

By Thomas J. Hubschman

(c) Thomas J. Hubschman

I recently viewed a panel discussion, originally aired in 2004 on public television’s Charlie Rose Show, about the Rwandan genocide that had taken place ten years earlier.

The panel consisted of Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2003/2007), a well-received and highly-awarded study of America’s responses to genocides in the twentieth century; Bonaventure Niyibizi, Executive Secretary and Privatization Secretariat of RIPA (Rwanda Investment Promotion Agency) and himself survivor of the Rwandan holocaust; Alex Barker, producer of the Frontline documentary that had precipitated the discussion; and Gregory Alex, a former UN aid worker stationed in Rwanda during the slaughter.

Nine years is not a long time as retrospections of genocides go. The Armenian genocide of 1915 is still being denied by the Turkish government. A bill condemning it comes up every year for debate before the US congress only to be defeated under pressure from domestic groups and foreign governments, though the historicity of the Armenian slaughter is no more disputable at this point than are the Nazi genocides.

Central to every discussion in the West of the attempted extermination of the Tutsi population in 1994 in Rwanda (at least 800,000 people, half of the Tutsis who made up 15 percent of the population) is the figure of Canadian Major General Alan Dallaire who was in charge of 2500 UN peace keepers stationed in the country to oversee a peace deal negotiated between the Hutu government and a Tutsi rebel movement. Dallaire has spent the time following his precipitous removal from Rwanda, at a point when even a small armed force could have made a significant difference in the course of events, first sunk in suicidal guilt, then as a one-man campaign to publicize what happened in Rwanda and to try to prevent its reoccurrence elsewhere, such as in Darfur.

I have heard and watched numerous interviews and speeches Dallaire has given over the years. His sincerity is obvious, his sense of personal responsibility, while no longer driving him to acts of self-destruction, abiding. He speaks of the killers he observed and sometimes negotiated with in archetypal terms, as forces of evil. He frequently states that while he doesn’t know if there is a God, he is certain there is a devil, because he has met him face-to-face and even shaken hands with him.

They, the commanders of the killers, he says in the documentary, “disappeared from being human… Something happened that turned them into non-human things,” while ominous, dirge-like music plays in the background. “And I was not talking with humans. I literally was talking with Evil… It became a difficult ethical problem: Do I negotiate with the devil to save people? Or do I shoot the bastards right there?”

Greg Barker, the film’s producer, takes up Dallaire’s mephistophelean imagery and speaks almost poetically of the “darkness of the human soul,” of our an innate capacity for evil.

Before the killing began Dallaire sent a fax to then-undersecretary of the UN in charge of peacekeeping operations, Kofi Anan, informing him that a reliable source had told him the Hutus could exterminate 1000 Tutsis every hour and would kill ten white peace keepers to force a withdrawal of UN troops, just as Americans had been forced, or chosen, to leave Somalia a couple months earlier after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident, when an American soldier’s body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Anan replies to Dallaire’s fax by telling him to give the information about the prospective slaughter to the Hutu government—the very people who were planning the genocide.

It’s all about the “nature of evil,” the show’s host suggests, and Greg Barker goes on to relate how the people he interviewed for the documentary all talked about the “eyes” of the killers. The former UN aid worker on the panel, Gregory Alex, immediately agrees: Their eyes were full of darkness, “tunnels without walls,” filled with total, infinite darkness. You could, he says, recognize the killers by those eyes. The eyes of the killers became “black” full of “darkness.”

Alex also speaks of the personal nature of the killing, how it happened “up close,” among neighbors, even within the same family. Some women killed their own nieces and nephews if they were the product of Hutu and Tutsi marriages. And the killers, he says, were “loving it,” incited but not forced to do what they did.

Much of the discussion was about who in the West and at the UN was responsible for not doing something, anything, to prevent or stop the slaughter. There is plenty of blame to go around. The UN under the secretariat of Boutros Boutros Gali and his undersecretary Kofi Anan, itself certainly failed when it not only declined to increase the troop numbers to the 5000 Dallaire was requesting but withdrew all peace keepers entirely under Security Council pressure, principally from the US. President Clinton never discussed the holocaust taking place in Rwanda at a cabinet level meeting, insisted on the withdrawal of all UN troops and even prevented other nations from intervening in the crisis.

Given the intelligence that was readily available in real time about what was happening in the small African nation, the failure of any outside forces to intervene was unprecedented. Willful ignorance was in play in the Bosnian genocide of the mid-1990s, but the slaughter in Rwanda was far more extensive and rapid, with all the killing done in just a few short weeks. The Nazis were less efficient killers than the Hutus despite the low-tech machetes and clubs they used, and the Serbs were tentative at first like their Nazi predecessors.

President Clinton expressed “regret” during a brief tarmac visit to Kigali the year after the slaughter. Kofi Anan went on to replace Boutros Gali as Secretary General of the United Nations.

Of the four panelists, only aid worker Gregory Alex and Bonaventure Niyibizi had observed the Rwandan genocide first-hand. Niyibizi was also the only non-Westerner at the table. He deferred to the others, either out of reticence or, more likely, polite bemusement. When he did finally speak it was to say that there were a couple of things that helped explain what happened: First, since 1960, under colonial rule, all Rwandans were required to carry identity cards which identified their ethnic status, Hutu or Tutsi. These cards were used for every aspect of life in Rwanda after independence as well. Also, for the past thirty-five years there had been one million refugees who were kept from returning to their country by the governments in power throughout that time. So, you had: legal segregation, ethnic tensions with occasional flareups, a million Rwandans being prevented from returning to their homeland. Yet Rwanda was consistently looked upon by the international community as an example of “good government.”

The slaughter that occurred in 1994, Niyibizi concluded in his quiet, reasonable way, was a long time in coming and had proceeded by increments.

The other members of the panel listened politely, then went back to talking about the darkened eyes of the Hutu murderers and the inherent inclination in human nature toward evil.

But Niyibizi had the last word, or almost. Troops were not needed to stop the genocide in Rwanda, he quietly affirmed. “A simple telephone call from Clinton or Mitterrand would have been enough. The genocide would have stopped the same day.” What has not stopped, he quickly added, are the consequences of the slaughter—the terrible toll it has taken on relations among the Rwandese, and the denial that has set in.

About those evil eyes and the terrible blackness Dallaire and the others talked about, Niyibizi suggested: “How can it be possible that you are killing every day, all day… women killed after being raped. How is it possible you could have a human reaction after being in this kind of situation… two weeks and so on—killing kids… raping…?”

I began to think: which of these five people is talking like a pre-Enlightenment cleric? The Harvard scholar? The documentary filmmaker? The UN aid worker? The public television talk show host? Or the African survivor? How is it, I wondered, that these blue-eyed intellectuals, along with a sitting president and most members of a US Congress, all reasonably well-educated 21st-century people, how is it that so many of them are so willing to invoke the devil to explain phenomena that are as deeply rooted in human history as war itself? I was reminded of narratives I heard from the mouths of survivors of the Nazi slaughters—narratives full of ambiguity, unexpected betrayal and unanticipated assistance, of mundane reasons for atrocious acts. It is mostly outsiders who see Evil at work where those directly affected see all-too-human reasons for the way people act under extreme circumstances.

There was another aspect to the vision of evil that no one, from the anti-hero Dallaire to the subtlety-challenged Rose, seemed to notice, unless perhaps the African Niyibizi, who was either too polite to point it out or realized what a Pandora’s box he would open in doing so. The eyes of the killers, those evil, infinite chambers of supernatural mischief were always and most emphatically “black.” Did anyone describe Serbian or Khmer Rouge eyes that way? If so, I don’t recall it, certainly not in Samantha Power’s book, and she was reporting first-hand during the Serbian assault on Bosnia when the mass rapes and slaughters were taking place in as cruel and grisly a fashion as anything that happened in Rwanda. Is that because evil does not turn European eyes black, or is it because African eyes are already black, or nearly so, like African skin, and it takes very little imagination, especially under the circumstances of 1994, to “see” the evil, i.e. the blackness, already there?

Is it possible all these intelligent, well-informed people were really doing nothing more than suggesting, however unconsciously, that “blackness” is the source and color of evil? I’d like to think this is a simplistic or specious conclusion, but I can’t for the life of me see how it can be avoided.

George W. Bush has also found it convenient to invoke Evil as the motive and essence of Terrorism, just as his predecessor Ronald Reagan used that word to characterize a Communist empire. That was rhetoric, and it served a purpose: to reduce something complex and multi-causal to a simple, easily understood formula. But how can an agnostic like Dallaire believe in a devil? And how can PhDs believe in capital-E Evil?

But despite all this talk about blackness and demons, Samantha Power has suggested, albeit elsewhere than the Charlie Rose Show, a plausible explanation for the non-action of so-called developed nations to the Rwandan and other genocides of the second half of the twentieth century: The campaign that has been waged for the last thirty-five years to establish the Nazi attempt to exterminate all the Jews of Europe as the capital-H Holocaust has “raised the bar” so high that anything that doesn’t match up to the slaughter of the six million is only genocide in a secondary, almost figurative way. Only one genocide deserves a national museum on the Mall in Washington along with dozens of other municipal Holocaust museums throughout the United States; only one is memorialized in more than 10,000 books, movies, mini-series and documentaries. Is it any wonder that the slaughter of a “mere” 800,000 human beings doesn’t seem to rise to that level of atrocity or deserve as much attention, even if it is happening right now—and even when, as in Bosnia, it is happening to white people?

The West has not needed much of an excuse to turn a blind eye to mass slaughter, whether it was happening in Armenia, Europe, Cambodia, East Timor, Rwanda or Darfur. Usually it’s simply a matter of declaring an intervention to be not in a nation’s “national interest.” Afterward one can always invoke Evil as the cause for what happened—an airtight excuse, because it implies the working of an overwhelming supernatural force that only an equally powerful supernatural force can counter, not mere humans. If you blame genocide on the Devil, it is really God’s responsibility to deal with it, or not. Or you can pretend that the Turks, Nazis, Khmer Rouge, Indonesians, Hutus, and Janjaweed are all being used as instruments of divine vengeance for the sins of their victims. If that’s what we’ve come to, we may as well forget the UN charter and other international law and revert to biblical injunctions to slaughter all our enemies along with his women and children and beasts of burden. We can always blame it afterward on God…or the devil.

  1. I too have reached the same conclusion about the destructiveness of explaining human actions as “evil.” It’s a way of avoiding the humanity of the acts we find so despicable, of categorizing them emphatically as “not us.” But there are hugely negative consequences of this cop-out: it absolves us not only of any need to recognize ourselves in anything that was done, but of recognizing the natural, human, down-to-earth reasons why they occurred. And so we can’t really make things better the next time around, because we will trying — if we try at all – to tackle the wrong cause.

    But it does something else that is equally terrible. It gives us a justification for attacking the “evil-doers” with the same ferocity with which they attacked their so-called enemies. We become the very thing we hate. The history of religion is full of examples demonstrating this. We are still living with the consequences of the Crusades, for example, a thousand years later.

    The psychologist Carl Jung said that if we truly know ourselves, we can recognize in ourselves the potential for any human act whatsoever. That’s the best of us. But it’s also the worst of us.

  2. Odd, isn’t it, the way they thought they could identify evil by a physical characteristic, i.e. blackness. Did it never occur to them that the perpetrators of atrocities do the same thing? The Nazis thought you could spot Jews by the shape of their heads and the way they smelled.

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