Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Well, I finally did it. After months (it seems like years) of resisting the pull of yet another project, here's my very own blog.

You may ask: why? To make a longish story short, I have a lot of things to say and limited space in which to publish it. In particular, this little extemporaneous essay needed a home, so it seemed like the best time to start. With no further ado, here it is:

It's April 7, 2004. Ten years ago, one of the most horrific slaughters ever was visited upon mankind: Rwandan Hutus massacred over 800 000 Tutsis in the span of just over three months. If you have trouble conceptualizing that, here's a little help. Imagine that, between now and the end of July, eight out of every ten people on the island of Montreal was shot, burned, or hacked to death. Oh, and here's the true horror: the people who did the killing were, just a few years earlier, the friends and neighbours of the victims.

The United Nations has declared today the International Day of Recollection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. In the backgrounder on the UN website, it's stated that in 2003 the Executive Council of the African Union "recommended that the United Nations and the international community proclaim, in commemoration of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an international day of reflection and recommitment to the fight against genocide throughout the world." The government of Rwanda has also asked that people observe a minute of silence at noon as part of the observance.

Most of you will likely be too busy to take that minute, so I want you to think about something. It's easy to come up with superlatives to describe what happened (off the top of my head: in terms of the rate of slaughter, the Rwandan genocide almost triples the daily death toll of the Holocaust, the most mechanized genocide of the century), but those tend to shock us into a kind of conceptual catatonia. Faced with the thought of that kind of overwhelming horror, people tend to just shut down and think, well, it's over, and besides it happened a decade ago. There's some truth to that: a decade of reconciliation in Rwanda seems, so far, to be working better than anyone could have hoped.

But it's not over. Genocide has been a recurring theme throughout the twentieth century, and in a certain sense we're all complicit. Not via the usual accusations of, say, indifference to the world outside of North America and Western Europe, or the lingering effects of European colonialism. The lesson of Rwanda and other atrocities is this: we have to stop allowing ourselves to be divided from one another. The culture wars in the United States have escalated to the point where, echoing the Hutu exhortations of 1994, Ann Coulter writes that liberals are "traitors," and "need to be executed." We're not immune, either: a recent headline I observed on the front of a Quebecois newspaper (Le Qu├ębecois) declared in bold, accusatory type that Paul Martin and Jean Charest were unified against the idea of Quebec's distinctiveness.

It's not just the politicians. We do this to each other as well. I've listened to friends, acquaintances and total strangers start sentences with "Well, he's Jewish, so..." and others factually state that Islam is intrinsically given to terrorism. I've listened to children cheerily say that if they're in an accident and their SUV kills the occupants of the other car, it's okay so long as they're safe. And I'll never forget the day I saw one car, running a red light, hit another and send it careening straight into a wall. The first car just kept going, and aside from me and three other pedestrians who ran to see if there was anything we could do, everyone else kept walking or driving as if nothing had happened.

Disconnecting from people allows events and attitudes like this to happen. When you fail to acknowledge that another person who may or may not look like you or who may or may not subscribe to your political beliefs also has desires, fears, and emotions, you make it easier to reduce them to nonbeings.

If you really want to commemorate Rwanda, the usual facile words won't help. Stop ignoring the hundreds of people you interact with every day just by being on the same street as them. Make eye contact. Communicate, even if it's just a smile. If we as a species can start reconnecting with each other and can relate to other people as people rather than "us" and "them," we stand a chance of averting another horror.

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