Sunday, May 13, 2007

Under African Skies

This is the story of how we begin to remember This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein After the dream of falling and calling your name out These are the roots of rhythm And the roots of rhythm remain --Paul Simon, "Under African Skies" I think I have a bit of a morbid streak. The other day I learned of the existence of a book named We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. I knew I had to read it. It called to me, even though all I saw of the book was a paragraph-long blurb. The book fit in with Dave Eggers' What is the What, the novelized story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a survivor of a genocidal war that long predated the current conflict in Darfur. It also connects in with A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers by Lawrence Weschler, a book that covered the despotic regimes of the '70s and '80s in Brazil and Uruguay from the perspective of the survivors. These books all tell different stories, but the stories are one and the same. They are the stories of what happens when some people forget that we are all human, no matter what label this group or that receives. All three books remind me that when we lose track of the fact that our enemies are human, we tend to forget that we are human. Gourevitch's book seems, at first glance, to be something too big for a simple thesis statement. It seems like it will answer a few questions and ask more than it, or any book, can possibly answer. But in the first chapter there is a paragraph that dares to ask one of the most difficult questions I've ever seen: But at Nyarubuye, and at thousands of other sites in this tiny country, on the same days of a few months is 1994, hundreds of thousands of Hutus had worked as killers in regular shifts. There was always the next victim, and the next. What sustained them, beyond the frenzy of the first attack, through the plain physical exhaustion and the mess of it? This is the same question that should haunt us as we approach the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, Darfur. These questions should follow us as we look at Saddam Hussein, but also at Gitmo and Abu Gharib. What mechanism is it in the human mind that allows commanders to order such atrocities? What mechanism is it that allows people to follow those orders? How did a program of Hutu Power allow Rwandans to kill their neighbors simply because they were Tutsis? How did Hitler and the Nazis whip the German people in to a frenzy directed at the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and crippled? Why did people follow Stalin, Pol Pot, even Joseph McCarthy? I fear we will never answer these questions. I also fear that we will have to ask them many times over in the future. One of the most quoted and least understood phrases quoted in regard to the study of history is Santayana's famous maxim that, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." We live in a world that takes that concept very literally. There is a general idea that because we know that some things happened in the past, they won't happen again. That's not at all what Santayana's warning means. Rote memorization is the easiest path to forgetfulness. We must learn the lessons of the past, not just the facts. These lessons aren't simply static bits of information for the digestion of historians. They tell us something about where we're going. They tell us what to look for now in order to avoid disaster in the future. It is because of what I know of Rwanda and the Holocaust that I fear the consequences of Ron Luce's BattleCry movement. It is because of the history of torture in South America that I worry about what will come of Gitmo and Abu Gharib. We seem to think that America is isolated from the rest of the world and its history. "It can't happen here," is one of the phrases most uttered when someone raises the alarm. It can. It probably will. Americans are humans, too. We have the very same tendency to villify those with different viewpoints and dehumanize those with different backgrounds everyone else does. We live in a nation that will eventually decline and fall. History tells us it happens to everyone. We aren't invincible. In fact, we're probably more vulnerable than most simply because we believe we are invincible. It can happen here.

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