We Would Not Be Capable

When atrocities occur our gut reaction is to wonder why and how. I have broadly answered the why of the Rwandan genocide. On the International Day of Reflection for the Rwandan genocide I want to go deeper. How can average people commit violence on such a large scale?

How could the Hutu Power movement kill, largely by hacking people apart with machetes, so many innocent people? How could they have butchered people at five times the rate of Jewish deaths in the Holocaust? How did they kill around 800,000 people during only the first six weeks? Combined with our racist conceptions of Africans it becomes easy to be aghast at the actual people of Rwanda and judge the country and by extrapolation the continent as savage, violent, broken, and in need of rescue.

I would never be capable of that. We proclaim loudly. How could they be capable of that? We come up with comfortable explanations. Savage fervor, primitive morality, mob violence, military cultures, fascism, communism, Islam. It couldn’t ever happen here. Not here. We would not be capable. Right?

It’s an easy trap to fall into. To be aghast at “a people” who could do that because Americans particularly, and the Western World in general, sits on our “city on the hill” our “shining” example of democracy. We think we are not violent as a nation. We do not have civil war, constant riots, and refugee camps. We have rule of law. However, the West is violent. It was built on violence, enforces its power with violence, and its average citizens enact violence on each other daily.

It is estimated that an average of 44 attacks occur before a woman even reports domestic violence, a fact made more visible through “A Killer in the Family” with Criminal Behavioural Analayst Laura Richards. Domestic violence is an internal war with death rates literally higher than that of Americans during war time.

“The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that time was 11,766. That’s nearly double the amount of casualties lost during war.” These numbers pulled from the Federal Bureau of Investigations crime statistics. (Huffington Post)

More men kill women than terrorists have and yet American focus is consistently on terrorism. Domestic violence is “nothing but a family thing.” Studies that show that women are as likely to be as aggressive as men are used to shrug this number off. But even if the rates of actual violence, injury, and deaths were close for both genders (which they are not) is this not proof that Americans are entirely capable of daily, sustained violence? Laura Richards points out that domestic violence is especially frightening because it is violence directed against those you know most intimately. Those who can commit violence against the ones they are supposed to care about most are equally if not more capable of violence against those they care little, or nothing about.

The Rwandan Genocide also brought up major issues of rape as a tool of war; as did the Democratic Republic of Congo. How could so many men perform such violence against the women of their country? The use of sexual violence to intimidate and control women has been harshly condemned by Western nations (as well as African nations themselves and countries around the world). However, how can we pretend our women are not terrorized into acceptable behavior themselves?

Women online face direct terrorism similar to the constant barrage of threats on radios and newspapers in the follow up to the Rwandan genocide. People directly target them because of their gender and utilize: stalking, “revenge porn” (leaking nude images of women), death threats, rape threats, rape videos, “humor” meant to deride and dismiss women’s voices and opinions because they are women. These are not empty threats, offline the violence is real and persistent. Seventy-six percent of trafficked people are female. Women and girls are actively bought and sold and the main recipients of trafficked women are Western nations exploiting them for sexual slavery. Think there is no violence hampering female education like in those “backwards” Muslim or African countries? When a woman in America heads to college her chances of being raped increase to 1 out of 3 women. The national numbers differ but around 1 in 6 women in America will be raped. Meanwhile law and order continually fails to protect citizens from this war and ninety seven percent of rapists will never see a day in jail.

In the same way violence is waged daily on people of color in this country. The rate of domestic violence against black women is “35% higher than that of white females and about 2.5 times the rate of women of other races.” Stereotypes that black women are aggressive and need to be controlled make it harder to get help; whereas white women are not generally assumed to be aggressive. The intersection of race discrimination and stereotypes combined with being a woman is dangerous.

Black men are victims of excessive force from police. This happens often, the idea that the intent to protect justifies murder such as in the case of previously domestically violent George Zimmerman’s”neighborhood watch” excuse. This combined with a social context of black men being perceived as inherently dangerous since they were brought over on slave ships creates a dangerous situation. So what happens when that “intent to protect” is wildly skewed against a group because of the groups perceived “inherent violence.” What happens when the intent to protect justifies racially biased policies against Arabs and religious based policies against Muslims? Well we’re seeing it.

Millions of Americans fully believe in the necessity of violence, registries, walls, and immigration/travel bans, and believe in killing terrorists with impunity – the label “terrorists” becoming increasingly synonymous with all Islamic countries and peoples. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are clearly capable of daily violence. We are making the same assumptions about entire groups of people. Already we had hate crimes in this country shoot up for weeks after 45s election. We are already enacting our hate speech and unlike in Rwanda the direct order has not been given, our president hasn’t just been assassinated, and we have the benefit of relatively great economic conditions and a stable democracy.

Genocide does not require unmoral, unprincipled, uneducated, evil people with blood lust. As journalist, Philip Gourevitch who studied Rwanda said, “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.”

So how did the Hutu Power movement get average citizens to commit mass violence? They mobilized people by taking advantage of unconsolidated democracy, by taking advantage of a huge power gap left by colonists final departure, by taking advantage of a president’s death, by taking advantage of intense racial tensions created by colonial policies, by threatening with CERTAIN death anyone who didn’t participate, by forcing people to kill, breaking them to make more killers, by enforcing the necessity of all this it at the highest levels of government.

The extremists gained power in an extremely unstable environment; choice was ripped from most. It could happen here. Daily violence already happens here. Daily violence happens everywhere. To understand violence we must stop simplifying it, prejudicially deciding what counts as what violence, and qualifying violence within our own borders.

Referenced Sources






We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with our Families, Philip Gourevitch, 1998.


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