I Rate It At 6/8

Echoes of Roméo Dallaire’s nightmares rumbled in my subconscious for years after I read his book Shake Hands With The Devil, [wc] about the Rwanda genocide. While the carnage began, Dallaire was the commander on the scene with the only professional military force; he was repeatedly ordered to steer clear of getting involved while the UN and diplomats and presidents flapped their hands on television. It was then, Dallaire reminds us, that the entire international community started using elaborate vocabulary in order to avoid uttering the word “genocide.”

Avoiding the word was not to protect anyone’s delicate sensibilities – it was because of the UN Convention on Genocide of 1951 – which requires intervention if the word “genocide” is applied to a situation. But it allows passive onlooking if it’s called merely “ethnic cleansing.” That’s how “never again” became, “… well, hardly ever.” I was tempted to pull my copy of the book down and include some quotes from it, but I remember the main points clearly enough – these are my take-aways from Dallaire:

  • The situation went from “bad” to “worse” much faster than anyone expected.
  • The people who stood around wringing their hands and did nothing while the situation brewed, did nothing when the situation exploded.
  • The genocide followed a logical progression from “bad” to “worse” and took on a certain inexorable momentum; Dallaire felt that it was probably impossible to stop it even with military force before it got started.
  • The people who planned the genocide were fairly open about their intentions; they said “we will kill you” on the radio, and they meant it.
  • The genocide was not organized because it didn’t need to be – the genociders had already socialized the idea that people should just grab a machete and hack people to bits – when people began actually doing it, others joined in as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

There’s another point that bleeds through which is that it’s very, very, very hard to stop a genocide once it gets going. The Hutu genociders eventually fled the country across the border into Zaire, magnifying the refugee crisis they created, and giving the international community an excuse to keep acting as though things were calming down. There are knock-on effects, in other words, because how do you balance and reconcile after such a thing? It’s not even appropriate to ask the victims to “forgive and forget” and it debases everyone if the situation turns into a cycle of revenge.

We don’t do a very good job of learning from it, either. Perhaps Steven Pinker believes that humanity is getting better and less violent, but I’m not convinced.

Let me introduce you to Stanton’s 8 Stages of Genocide. [wik]

Looks like we’re at about Stage 6. The light at the end of the tunnel may be a tiki torch.

Stage Characteristics Preventive measures
People are divided into “them and us”. “The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend… divisions.”
“When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups…” “To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden as can hate speech”.
“One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.” “Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Leaders who incite genocide should be banned from international travel and have their foreign finances frozen.”
“Genocide is always organized… Special army units or militias are often trained and armed…” “The U.N. should impose arms embargoes on governments and citizens of countries involved in genocidal massacres, and create commissions to investigate violations”
“Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda…” “Prevention may mean security protection for moderate leaders or assistance to human rights groups…Coups d’état by extremists should be opposed by international sanctions.”
“Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity…” “At this stage, a Genocide Emergency must be declared. …”
“It is ‘extermination’ to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human”. “At this stage, only rapid and overwhelming armed intervention can stop genocide. Real safe areas or refugee escape corridors should be established with heavily armed international protection.”
“The perpetrators… deny that they committed any crimes…” “The response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts”

The fascists are taking advantage of the fact that they can push things far past what should be an acceptable point, because they can rely on well intentioned people not to get violent, to try to reason things through, to try to negotiate. They are actually past the point where they are interested in accommodation, they are looking for a way to win. And, in their limited terms, winning means that someone else has got to lose.

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I wish I could end on a hopeful note but I’m running dry. I think that’s why I’ve been spending so much time trying to do creative work.

Dallaire says: “The empowerment of women – there’s the secret weapon.”

The US never faced what it needed to face, even after its civil war. These are centuries-old chickens coming home to roost. White supremacy was not eradicated after the civil war because the winners on both sides were white supremacists.



  1. says

    Someone’s thrown some light onto the accepted narrative

    That is not contrary to the “accepted narrative” – Dallaire even describes the counter-genocide in his book, and I referred obliquely to it in my posting. Anyone who knows anything about the genocide in Rwanda is aware that it became a back-and-forth; there’s nothing there to be contrarian about.

    By the way, I hate the term “accepted narrative” because it usually is a warning that I’m about to encounter pseudoskepticism, pathological authoritarianism, or ideological talking-points. I’m not saying “don’t use it” but it’s become a bit shabby and the stuffing under the vinyl has gotten compacted into something nasty. Joking aside, the problem with “accepted narrative” is that it attempts to stereotype other people’s opinions as though they agree on something – which is presumably wrong – because otherwise, why try to flag it as “accepted”? The history of the Rwandan genocide is well-documented and seems pretty clear to me; there is no alternate analysis I’m aware of that is not denial of established facts.

  2. says

    Perhaps Steven Pinker believes that humanity is getting better and less violent, but I’m not convinced.

    I’m perfectly fine with this Pinker’s claim. It’s based in statistics, so it’s reasonably simple to validate. How large percentage of human population had “killed by another human being” as the cause of their death 500 years ago? And how many people are killed by other humans nowadays? Sure, obtaining accurate statistics about people’s cause of death many centuries ago is not that simple, but we can at least make reasonable estimates. Thus I’m perfectly willing to believe that in past a larger percentage of people got killed than nowadays.

    By the way, this does not mean that humanity is doing great nowadays. I’d say that we are doing awfully. It’s just that in past humans were even worse than they are now. Try reading any novel written some centuries ago, and the chances are that the protagonists will be violent murderers yet the novel will portray them as perfectly fine and heroic human beings.

  3. says

    Ieva Skrebele@#4:
    I’m perfectly fine with this Pinker’s claim. It’s based in statistics, so it’s reasonably simple to validate.

    Really? When I see statistics, I usually assume someone is lying.
    It’s very very easy to manipulate statistics to “prove” nearly any point. I’m just too lazy to dig into Pinker’s statistics and see if he’s playing games. I have a copy of it, and I flipped through it; Pinker’s prose puts Marcus to nodding pretty promptly, when it’s not making me head-explodingly angry.

  4. says

    Marcus @#5

    When I see statistics, I usually assume someone is lying.
    It’s very very easy to manipulate statistics to “prove” nearly any point.

    Of course. I’m familiar with the ways how people can manipulate statistics. And they often do exactly that. But what other options are there really? If we do not trust statistics, how else do we make decisions? Trust our gut feelings?

    Would you prefer if somebody said “I have a hunch that nowadays people kill each other less often than they did in the past” instead of saying “let’s look at available statistics for death causes among humans and try to figure out whether nowadays they kill each other more or less compared to what they did in the past”? In my opinion, the other option would be even worse than attempting to analyze available statistics.

    My willingness to trust human hunches and gut feelings is even smaller than my willingness to trust their (often faulty or intentionally manipulated) interpretations of statistics.

    jazzlet @#6

    500 is a random number. Would you prefer 1000 instead? 200? Or maybe 5000? Anything else in particular? I just tried not to make the sentence even longer than it already was — “at various time points throughout history” would have made the sentence even longer. I constantly feel like my sentence constructions are too long and convoluted and thus it reduces the clarity of my texts; it feels for me like I’m really bad with formulating short sentences. I don’t know, maybe that’s just how I feel and other people are perfectly happy with long sentences. For me this is definitely the influence of other languages (I’m a polyglot, and in my head the various languages I know occasionally interfere with each other). Because of the way how these languages work, in German and in Latvian long sentences are a pain for the reader to parse; I guess in English that’s not so bad. Some years ago I had the misfortune of being forced to read some old German texts with ridiculously long sentences, and ever since then I feel uncomfortable whenever my sentences start getting long. And they do that all the time. Anyway, what I’m trying to say (see: I’m inherently unable to keep my texts short) is that I often tend to use a single example instead of a longer explanatory description, because for me it feels like this improves comprehension.

  5. Dunc says

    The biggest problem I have with that claim is that it relies on the notion that percentages are more important than absolute numbers. Is it really worse if 10 people are suffering out of a population of 100 than if a million people are suffering out of a population of a billion? I’m reminded of something Iain M. Banks had one of the Culture Minds say about an apparently low percentage casualty rate in a battle: “It’s always 100% for the individual concerned.”

  6. jazzlet says

    Ieva Skrebele@#7:
    Sorry I should have been more clear, where you choose to start your statistics on many things that may have changed over time can have a huge impact on what you end up showing: if you start your study of the impact of disease on popuations over time during the period of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu, you end up with a very different result than if you start outside the period of an epidemic. I don’t know where Pinker started, but how that date, as opposed to other nearby dates, would influence the statistics would be the first question I would ask.

    On the subject of sentences I’m certainly prone to writing and speaking long sentences with lots of clauses, rather too many probably, and I’m a native English speaker, so make of that what you will, but I think you could safely go with longer sentences than you do.

  7. says

    Dunc @#8

    Is it really worse if 10 people are suffering out of a population of 100 than if a million people are suffering out of a population of a billion?

    Where did anybody say that 10 dead people are worse than a million dead people? That’s not what this argument was about. Instead it went approximately like this: we have some tribe A where there are 100 people and 10 of them get slaughtered in a war. We also have a country B where there are 100 million people and 1000 of them get slaughtered in a war. At this point nobody is claiming that 1000 dead people are better than 10 dead people. Instead the claim is that the people who compose the tribe A seem to be more violent and bloodthirsty than people who compose the country B, because a larger percentage of their people ended up getting killed by other people.

    By the way, personally, I actually perceive probabilities as important. If I was born in tribe A, my probability of getting murdered would be 10%. That sucks. I’d much rather be born in country B where my chances of survival are much higher. Probability of a bad outcome happening is exactly what I use when making decisions about what I choose to do in my daily life. For example, I’m perfectly happy boarding airplanes, because the probability of my plane crashing is minuscule. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable having unprotected sex with strangers, because the probability of shit happening (STIs, abortions) is much higher and too high for me to feel comfortable taking the risk. Of course, it is still possible for me to become one of those unlucky people who do end up in a plane crash and if that happened, it would really suck for me. However, since I cannot predict the future in advance, all that’s left for me it to make my decisions based upon probabilities for good or bad outcomes.

  8. dorfl says

    Ieva Skrebele #4

    It’s based in statistics, so it’s reasonably simple to validate.

    It’s actually really, really hard. I mean, it’s easy to rerun his analysis using his data and check if the same number comes out. The problem is partly that any statistical analysis relies on some assumption of what kind of statistical distribution your data is drawn from, and that assumption can be really hard to test. Sometimes, you end up with reasonable people disagreeing, and insufficient data to rule out either side. In this case, you can analyse Pinker’s data on the assumption that violent events follow a trend where the frequency decreases but the magnitude of each event increases. In you do, you’ll probably be able to fit the available data about as well as he does, but you won’t see any overall decrease in violence.

  9. says

    I’ll just mention 500 years ago was the year before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the first large scale European invasion of the American mainland.