Sunday, February 06, 2005

On Hotel Rwanda

Okay, so I saw "Hotel Rwanda" with my brother on Saturday, and I have to say that that's probably the most powerful movie I've seen in my entire life. And I don't say that lightly. "Schindler's List" is a very close second, but "Hotel Rwanda" is first, probably because it's about something that happened in my lifetime. The Holocaust was truly horrible, but it's something that I read about in books and saw on the History Channel; the genocide in Rwanda happened while I was alive, while I was even old enough to remember it, and that makes it that much more real.

And it makes it that much more shameful. Watching the atrocities of that conflict, the things that people did to each other for no other reason than that this guy is a Hutu and this guy is a Tutsi, two completely arbitrary designations, is absolutely mind-blowing and made me ashamed to be a human being. I'm not saying that I'm a wonderful person or without stain or anything like that, but I can't imagine taking another life in cold blood. I have enough trouble imagining being able to take a life in self-defense, killing just one. But my brother pointed out that during that period in Rwanda, there were literally millions of murders. Not only were these people willing to look another person in the eye and then take his or her life, they were willing to do it again and again and again. Not even dropping a bomb on millions or herding millions of people into a gas chamber - killing millions of people one at a time, killing friends and neighbors one at a time. And for no other reason than that the people were in a different group as decided by their height or the width of their noses or the whim of a bunch of Belgians.

Watching the American and European reactions to those atrocities, though, made me ashamed to be a white human being. One of the characters mentioned that people would see news footage of the dead bodies and the men marching around with machetes and say, "Oh, my God, that's horrible" - and then they'd go back to eating their dinners. And that's what happened. I mean, I remember hearing about it, and wondering why the Hutus wanted to kill the Tutsis and vice versa, and thinking that it's horrible and I wouldn't want it to happen to me - but that's as far as it ever got. That's as far as it ever got with anyone - countries would come in, armed to the teeth, with thousands of troops to pluck out their own white citizens, and then the citizens and the troops and the arms would take off, leaving all of the brown people to get hacked to death with machetes. And we, the rest of the world, were okay with that. Three thousand UN troops for millions of people was plenty. As long as it was just "isolated acts of genocide" instead of genocide proper, no one had to intervene.

That made me think about my own attitude toward the current war in Iraq. Hadn't I really kind of been saying the same thing? "Yeah, Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, and there were the rape rooms and the mass graves and the ordered executions, but is that enough to intervene? Is that enough to risk American lives?" And as horrible as it sounds, I don't really have an answer to that question. Why are the two situations different? Is it because the atrocities are on a different scale, or because one was government sanctioned? Or am I just too stubborn to admit that Iraq needed outside intervention just as much as Rwanda did?

Stubborn or not, I've got a lot of questions that will only be answered with time. Reconciling more than a thousand coalition dead and thousands of Iraqi civilian dead with thousands of Iraqis murdered by Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction that never existed with democratic elections with America's loss of credibility in the world with... whatever might mean that the questions will never answered, or never answered to anyone's satisfaction. But they're questions worth discussing, if only to find out what we can do as people such that Rwanda and Iraq - and the Holocaust, for that matter - can be prevented in the future. And if there's a movie that can facilitate that discussion, I think it's beyond Oscar-worthy.

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