Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Specter of Genocide

On 6 April 1994, someone fired a rocket into a plane carrying the president of Rwanda as it was about to land at the Kigali airport. Hours later one of the worst genocides in world history was underway, as Hutu killers begin to massacre any political leader, Hutu or Tutsi, who had supported an earlier peace agreement between the government and rebel Tutsi forces. Historians of genocide call this eliticide, the murder of the elite of a target group so as to demoralize followers and prevent an organized response. But the perpetrators didn’t stop with the leadership; ultimately, 800,000 people lost their lives in this systematic, carefully planned slaughter. I’ve already written about the Rwandan genocide on a few occasions and don’t want to retread old terrain. I’m currently teaching a course on genocide for the University of Mantua (pseudonym) and have divided up the curriculum into five units or case studies. For these next two weeks we’re focusing on Rwanda; as it turns out, the genocide begin in the month of April (and lasted for three months). Then again, two earlier genocides that we have discussed in this class, the Armenian genocide and Cambodian genocide, also started in April!

For those of you who like to keep up on U.S. foreign policy, especially given our far-flung military commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, you should know a thing or two about Rwanda. Just over a week ago President Obama invoked the specter of genocide in the explanation of his decision to take action in Libya. He didn’t name Rwanda or Bosnia or Saddam Hussein, but these dark episodes in recent history were in the backdrop of his statement:

In the past, we had seen him [Gaddafi] hang civilians in the streets and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that...if we waited one more day, Benghazi, a city nearly the size of Charlotte, could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen; I refused to let that happen.

Granted, this was only one of his arguments, the moral issue, but appealing to the prospect of our “stained conscience” was a big one.  I don’t want to address the question as to whether assisting the anti-Gaddafi rebels via air strikes is a foolhardy undertaking or the proverbial “right thing to do.”  That’s an issue for another post.  His critics on the far left and on the right—the latter somewhat disingenuously, I might add—rightly ask why we have intervened to stop a ruthless dictator in North Africa when the world is filled to the brim with such loathsome regimes (e.g., North Korea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Myanmar, Zimbabwe).  The age-old question arises: Are we the Policeman of the world?

I will say, however, that the President’s allusion to the prospect of genocidal massacre on the part of the Gaddafi regime, should the international community not intervene, resonated with me. After all, ever since the Holocaust some seventy years ago, the international community has continually cried out “never again!” ex post facto.  More recently, the great powers of the world, the United States above all, turned a blind eye or made the situation worse when genocide broke out in Bosnia and Rwanda.  Then there was Darfur within a decade!  I plan to post my thoughts on our involvement in Libya in the future, but this part of President Obama's address captured my ear.  Of course it’s not the most solid foundation for one’s argument to rely on the absence of evidence, and it certainly won't satisfy his critics.  Like President Bush who warned about a Saddam Hussein with nuclear capabilities, President Obama is claiming to prevent a massacre that would break out if NATO does not get involved.