Imagining The Nation, Constructing The Future

We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

by Philip Gourevitch

It is a cycle as old as tribalism. In the beginning there is ignorance. Ignorance engenders fear. Fear engenders hatred, and hatred engenders violence. Violence breeds further violence until the only law is whatever is willed by the most powerful.

-David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Imagining the nation, constructing the future: The ideology of genocide

In the introduction of this book, Gourevitch introduces the concept of how both the private and collective human consciousness imagine realities into existence. This idea is, in fact, the very ideological core of the book, as he points out, “this is a book about how people imagine themselves and one another—a book about how we imagine our world” (6). This has always been true of human societies and is prefaced in Gourevitch with the illustration that even before this violent culmination of Hutu-Tutsi antagonism, Rwanda had already been mapped by the European colonial imagination (53).

Gourevitch asserts that the brutal eradication of the Tutsi race from the earth was promoted by Hutu Power as an actual means of improving the world. This is, unfortunately, a recurring theme that seems to arise at all too many points of intersection between human groups. Evidently, the rhetoric of whatever group wields the most power at the time instills the desire for and belief in an imagined “new world order” (17) that can be achieved through the implementation of mass violence and demographic control. Moreover, it is not even necessary to advocate or enjoy acts of violence. Nazi policymakers went so far as to install massive networks of gas chambers in concentration camps, largely in order to alleviate the extreme psychological stress that their soldiers underwent when forced to inflict physical atrocities head on (see notes on Himmler in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). Gourevitch notes that perpetrators “need not enjoy killing, and they may even find it unpleasant. What is required above all is that they want their victims dead. They have to want it so badly that they consider it a necessity” (18). This is one of the reasons that both Nazis, and later Hutus, termed comprehensive campaigns of genocide as a “final solution” (94)—it is something much deeper and more far reaching than bloodlust.

And so, preceding the feverish mania of the “mob” and the base adrenaline that accompanies possessing the power of death over another human being, genocide is constructed ontologically. Societies prepare themselves psychologically, socially, and politically for genocide long before the first stone is ever thrown. They brace themselves, often without even knowing it, for entrance into a brand of carnage and aggression of which they may have not even been able to conceive but for the fact that life as they know or desire it will be destroyed unless they first preemptively destroy. Individual people may not even support killing, but become so afraid of the propaganda-driven promise of death ensured by the existence of the target group (or, as the case often seems to be, fear of retribution from the dominant group if they do not participate) that ey come to understand that the world would really be better off if the other just did not exist, however difficult and gruesome the undertaking. This, undoubtedly, is the difficult but crucial point to understand about what spurs the engine of genocide, and it is the troublesome truth lurking at the heart of Gourevitch’s thesis:

Genocide, after all, is an exercise in community building. A vigorous totalitarian order requires that the people be invested in the leaders’ scheme, and while genocide may be the most perverse and ambitious means to this end, it is also the most comprehensive. In 1994, Rwanda was regarded in much of the rest of the world as the exemplary instance of the chaos and anarchy associated with collapsed states. In fact, the genocide was the product of order, authoritarianism, decades of modern political theorizing and indoctrination, and one of the most meticulously administered states in history. And strange as it may sound, the ideology—or what Rwandans call ‘the logic’—of genocide was promoted as a way not to create suffering but to alleviate it. The specter of an absolute menace that requires absolute eradication binds leader and people in a hermetic utopian embrace, and the individual—always an annoyance to totality—ceases to exist (95).

Thus, totalitarian, fascist-leaning systems, genocidal campaigns and concentration camps become what Laurent Milesi terms “the modern apparatus for the elimination of difference.” This preparation is evident at many different phases and is especially apparent in the language that is employed to createand enforce the inferiority of the other group.

Genocide Watch outlines the 8 stages of genocide that societies undergo before an actual organized program of killing is fully completed. The stages are as follows: 1) Classification; 2) Symbolization; 3) Dehumanization; 4) Organization; 5) Polarization; 6) Preparation; 7) Extermination; (8) Denial. After target groups have been clearly identified through the processes of classification and symbolization in which they are clearly identified and differentiated from “normal” citizens, the process of dehumanization begins. One of the primary and most disturbing characteristic of this phase is the tendency to apply dehumanizing language to the target group, often referring to people such as Jews or Tutsis as vermin, animals, insects, or disease. This is an incredibly effective pro-genocidal technique because it operates on the consciousness of a nation that is becoming more and more ideologically extreme in its framing of social groups, sometimes before even one drop of blood is shed. Language is what promotes the association of humans with something undesirable and less than human, something threatening, and validates the concept of extermination. This is an example of how political rhetoric and ideology imagine a contrived reality into existence.

Essentially, language becomes enforced reality. As Gourevitch writes, “power consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality—even, as is so often the case, when that story is written in their blood” (48).

Conformity is very deep, very developed here . . .People revere power.
-Rwandan survivor, p. 23

Conformity and Power: Creating killers, erasing victims

Gourevitch points out that perhaps more baffling than the astonishing number of corpses produced by the Rwandan genocide is the number of killers it succeeded in producing. One Tutsi survivor reflected on this devastating, widespread transformation of his Hutu countrymen: “Let’s say someone is reluctant . . . He runs along with the rest, but he doesn’t kill, They say, ‘He might denounce us later. He must kill. Everyone must help to kill at least one person.’ So this person who is not a killer is made to do it. And the next day it’s become a game for him. You don’t need to keep pushing him” (24).

Romanian poet Paul Goma describes a similar psychological technique craftily utilized by former KGB torture experts on Romanian students under the dictatorship of Ceaucescu. In The Dogs of Death, Goma articulates the cruel efficiency of such practices by explaining how securitate torturers discovered that if victims were made to perform torture on one another, they achieved sufficient erasure of both victimhood and culpability. Torture victims were denied solidarity amongst themselves and were instead relegated to the realities of guilt and isolation. And perhaps more importantly, participation in their own oppression and dehumanization rendered the source of this subjugation to be faceless and systemic. Perpetrators were free to torture and kill with impunity under the protective mask of communal guilt. Architects of genocide thrive on this dissociation of acts of atrocity from individual agency. Gourevitch, too, keenly recognizes this in Rwanda, noting the demand that all Rwandans become actively incorporated into the genocide: “The entire Hutu population had to kill the entire Tutsi population. In addition to ensuring obvious numerical advantages, this arrangement eliminated any questions of accountability which might arise. If everybody is implicated, then implication becomes meaningless” (96) Thus, not only was the imagined Rwandan future forged by the absence of a Tutsi population, but also by the moral transfiguration that manipulated the Hutu population and manufactured murderers.

(images: Dave Blume)

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