How I Rwanda What You Are

by Theodore Dalrymple (August 2014)

If ever there were a competition for the most cynical remark ever made, I think François Mitterand’s at the beginning of genocide in Rwanda would stand a fair chance of winning. ‘In those countries down there,’ he is said to have said, ‘a genocide isn’t too important.’

I came across this uplifting sentiment in a book that I bought at the Shoah Memorial in Paris recently, Gêneurs de survivants! (Annoying Survivors!), by Dominique Celis, a half-Rwandan woman living in Belgium. There was an exhibition at the Memorial to mark the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, perhaps the most democratic of all Twentieth Century genocides, or at any rate the one with the greatest popular participation. There were photos, recorded testimonies, even a few videos of the massacres themselves, though not too many to sicken the sensitive or satiate the sadistic. There was a pile of clothes of the massacred, from which I thought I could detect a characteristic smell (I am familiar with the smell of massacre), but my wife said that it was in my imagination. There were the instruments of genocide, from scythes and machetes to home-made mallets with which to smash skulls.

On our way to the Memorial, to pass the time in the Métro, I had been reading the Black Book of Psychoanalysis, an uncompromising critique of Freud and his legacy. Freud was no scientist; he was instead an unscrupulous charlatan, oscillating between wishful thinking and outright lying, an unscrupulous manipulator who owed his success not to the truth but to the emptiness of his theories, the founder of a religious sect rather than of a scientific discipline, a man avid for fame and fortune only too aware that he might not achieve them by more conventional means, and an incestuous adulterer to boot. Moreover, his technique, if something as nebulous as psychoanalyisis can be called a technique, was of no greater therapeutic value than exorcism, although much more expensive and a great deal less fun – except for those who desired to talk endlessly about themselves and were willing to pay someone else to listen to them or at least pretend to listen to them.

France, as well as Argentina, is the last redoubt in the world of psychoanalysis (not that this prevents the French from being world-champion psychotropic medication swallowers as well, on the contrary); the bookshops are still full of volumes by psychoanalysts written in alchemical language that means something only to those who have entered their temple, and perhaps not even to them. The exposure of Freud as a fraud, or a near-fraud, still comes as a shock in France, long after it has ceased to be such elsewhere in the western world. The question that remains, but that is not susceptible to a definitive answer, is why theories so arcane, so preposterously speculative, so lacking in evidence in their favour and even in the possibility of there being any such evidence, should for a number of decades have conquered the most scientifically-advanced regions of the world.

Anyway, the book was good knockabout fun for those, like me, who enjoy the demolition of easy targets; and the ad hominem, always the most enjoyable form of argumentation, is here permissible because Freudians resort to it almost at once in defence of themselves. He who argues by the ad hominem is refuted by the ad hominem

The importance of Freud in the cultural history of the west (but nowhere else, which should give at least pause to our tendency to self-congratulation) means that a book such as the one I was reading was not trivial, for all that it was flogging a moribund horse. But as soon as I entered the Memorial, with its wall engraved with the names of the 70,000 Jews deported from France to the camps during the war, vanishingly few of whom ever returned, one immediately feels that all subjects other than this – and the Gulag, Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and perhaps Sendero Luminoso – are frivolous, without importance. Who cares whether or not psychoanalysis is founded upon scientific truths? This in turn is an absurd thought because the mind cannot reflect upon genocide alone; a world in which people thought and spoke only of the most important of subjects would be not only intolerable but filled with untruth.

The exhibition of the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda – to call it Rwandan without qualification raises all kinds of problems – was small but effective. I am not sure what exactly one learned from it, however, other than it is necessary always for prudent people to keep available to the mind the worst of which Mankind is capable, if not always present in it. No worst, there is none, wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in another context, and, alas, the subsequent century was to prove him right. No worst, there is none: the pit is bottomless.

The texts accompanying the exhibits were not entirely satisfactory: but then perfection is not of this world. I found, for example, the strenuous denial of any physical differences whatsoever between the Tutsi and the Hutu, and the claim that the difference between the two groups was purely social in origin, not entirely convincing and in any case somewhat sinister in its implications. For it meant that, if there had indeed been genetic or physical differences between the groups, the genocide would have been in some way less serious, less abominable, than it was. But this is wrong: it matters, ethically, not a jot whether there was or was not a real biological difference between the Tutsi and the Hutu, or how great or small the genetic overlap between them is; for the simple fact is – it should hardly need pointing out – that it is wrong in any conceivable circumstances or for any reason whatever for people to massacre their neighbours in an attempt to wipe them out altogether: and this is so whether they are biologically indistinguishable or easily distinguished.

There was also a dog that did not bark in the exhibition: Burundi. That neighbouring country, very similar to Rwanda culturally and demographically (85 per cent Hutu, 14 per cent Tutsi, 1 per cent Twa), has been almost a mirror image to Rwanda. Burundi, unlike Rwanda, did not overthrow Tutsi political and administrative dominance at its independence from Belgium; and in 1972, after an uprising in which Hutu killed many Tutsi, up to 200,000 Hutu – equivalent to double that number in 1994, the year of the genocide in Rwanda – were massacred by Tutsi, including all those who had been to secondary school and who might therefore be supposed to represent a threat to Tutsi dominance. Whether or not this constituted genocide is unimportant: a massacre by any other name is just as terrible.

The genocide in Rwanda, long mooted and eventually planned in full, took place in a context in which a predominantly Tutsi rebel movement was trying to overthrow the Hutu government in Rwanda (and soon afterwards succeeded, of course). It would be surprising if the example of what had happened in Burundi twenty years earlier under a Tutsi government had had no effect on the minds of the Hutu majority in Rwanda, though in fact the rebel movement planned no such conduct on reaching power. Shortly before the genocide, moreover, the first democratically elected Hutu president of Burundi Melchior Ndadaye, had been assassinated by Tutsi soldiers after only three months in office. The fact that the first president of Rwanda after the victory of the rebels would be a Hutu, as would be many of the ministers, was unsuspected at the time.

Why was Burundi not mentioned in the exhibition? It was not that the exhibition excluded historical context altogether: for example, much was made of the colonising power’s strict division of the population into the racial categories of Hutu and Tutsi, much favouring the latter for educational and economic advancement. According to the exhibition’s version, there was no real division between them before this, though as it happens the Mwamis, or Kings, of both Burundi and Rwanda were always Tutsi.

The reason that Burundi was not mentioned, I surmise, was that the organisers feared that explanation would slide into exculpation: that the fears of the Hutu, or rather those of many of the Hutu (for of course not all Hutu were alike), would justify the genocide, even if only in part, in the minds of visitors. The Belgian role in the creation of the situation could be mentioned because it was perfectly safe to blame them; but to mention the Burundian role would run the risk not only of blaming the victims but of exculpating the perpetrators: many people believing that understanding and forgiveness are one.

This is not so, of course. All human action takes place in an historical context, whether this context be on a large or a small scale. There are antecedents to every murder, and quite often the victim has behaved badly towards the perpetrator; but this in no way annuls the perpetrator’s moral responsibility for his actions. It is true that there comes a point at which the conduct of the victim does excuse what would otherwise be a crime: self-defence, for example, is an absolute defence. But in the case of the Rwandan genocide, the people who were killed were not rebel soldiers seeking to overthrow the government, but peaceful neighbours and friends whose goods were coveted, stolen and enjoyed by the perpetrators in the most blatant possible fashion. In this instance, partial explanation is most definitely not exculpation, not even to a small extent.

Often we fear to explain human conduct, however, precisely because, try as we might to avoid it, explanation slides into exculpation. It is surely remarkable that so many books have been written about Rwanda that do not mention Burundi, except in passing as a destination for Rwandan refugees. This suggests either that the authors think that events in Burundi had no psychological effect upon Rwandan Hutu, or they fear that readers will excuse the inexcusable.

There was one further irony in the exhibition that went quite unremarked. It was that the Hutu government, before its overthrow, had a firm policy of positive discrimination, indeed it justified its existence in part by that very policy. Without this policy the Tutsi would have dominated education, administration and commerce, just as they did before the imposition of a numerus clausus in business, schools, universities, government offices, even in the Church (some of the upper clergy not only failed to condemn the genocide but actively encouraged it.)

The justification for the policy of positive discrimination in favour of the Hutu was that, without it, they would be underrepresented in positions of power, wealth and influence, an under-representation both unjust and undemocratic; and that it, the policy, was necessary to overcome the past discrimination against the Hutu that had reduced them to a chronically subservient position.

These arguments, unfortunately, are only too familiar in countries far away from Rwanda; they assume that, in a perfectly just society, where no one discriminates racially against anyone else, power, wealth and influence will be distributed in exact proportion to the weight of groups in the population. On this view, the decision of the Hutu government to limit the number of Tutsi students at the university to ten per cent (just below the proportion in the population) was perfectly reasonable and perhaps even obligatory. It redressed a balance in order to make society fairer.         

I do not suppose that supporters of positive discrimination will care much for the analogy between what they propose and the policy of the last Hutu rulers of Rwanda, but it is there nonetheless. Naturally, the analogy is a strictly limited one, for not even the most fervent of positive discriminators outside Rwanda is in favour of genocide. Visitors to the United States who favour positive discrimination can therefore still answer truthfully the question on the entry form about whether they have ever committed or conspired to commit genocide. But what they cannot claim is to be is against racial discrimination – not that they are asked, yet. 



Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Threats of Pain and Ruin from New English Review Press.

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