New: Book Report: Killing Neighbors

I used to work for a lady named Lee Ann Fujii. She was pretty cool, so when I heard that she wrote a book, I figured I'd read it to see what she's been up to. She's now a foreign policy wonk specializing in Rwanda... so this was an intense read.

Before I ever heard from LAFujii about this stuff, I knew what "everybody knows": the Rwandan genocide was the result of ancient tribal conflicts between the Hutu and Tutsi once again boiling over. Except, it turns out, that's not quite right.

Back when Belgium had a big colonial empire, they spread that story of the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. But those weren't ancient tribes. They were recent creations--but it was convenient for the Belgians to say that they just wanted to deal with the Tutsi. So they kept re-telling the Hutu/Tutsi/Twa thing until it seemed natural.

But that's stuff that I'd heard years ago. There's more in this book. In this intense book.

This book has interviews with folks who were there during the killings. This book has interviews with witnesses. This book has interviews with killers.

The book has a thesis. These killings--they weren't really a genocide. This was mass murder, but not necessarily directed at a tribe. If a local gang leader wanted someone killed, they could probably have that person killed, no matter what tribe that person was in. It was easier if that person was Tutsi, but... But people switched tribes. If you were a Tutsi, you could follow the survival strategy of saying your were Hutu and, you know, go find some Tutsis to kill. Or you could just bribe gang leaders to overlook you. The official story was racial conflict--but when you looked deeper, it seemed more like killers used racial conflict as an excuse to kill enemies, to boost prestige, to pillage. There was even a, uhm, community-building aspect--one way to build community is to share experience--like, say, killing your neighbors.

So... that was bleak and cynical.

But it gets more intense than that.


Because when you look at the details, it seems like something that could happen here. It seems like something that could happen anywhere. If you say "ancient ethnic hatred", that sounds unlike where I live. But when you break it down into cases, and you see how killers can talk themselves into killing.

On 9/11 2001, Islamic fundie terrorists killed many Americans. Some Americans responded by attacking Sikhs. That was tragic, ignorant, and awful. It stopped. What if it had kept going. What if local leaders had seen a way to consolidate their power by demonizing "towelheads"? What if our government had spread rumors that secret cells of turbaned terrorists were plotting to aid an immanent invasion?

That didn't happen. But when you see how it went down in Rwanda, you think "Yeah, I can see how people would react that way. Yeah, and I can see how that could lead to that." All the way up to killings.

Read it on a day when you'll be out with friends later so that they can cheer you back up again.

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Posted 2009-10-21