Genocide and jabber: Last week’s 10th anniversary of the Rwandan disaster made me think how glib these commemorations sometimes become. Phrases and analogies get trotted out: genocide, Holocaust, Hitler. A neighbour who heard a minute of silence called for on radio, says she thought, What a rare response!

Yet there are times when saying nothing is more apt than saying something trite or sentimental. If you can’t find the right word, try Wittgenstein’s, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” at least till the words arrive. But silence seems excluded in an age of ubiquitous media chatter as if, like modesty, it belongs to the past. And the distinction between sentimentality (think of it as sincere bullshit) and true emotion gets lost.

The fervent use of clichés and phrases simply helps avoid a real encounter with events. Take Rwanda. It was not genocide in the sense of the Holocaust, which was the bureaucratized elimination of a group, planned at conferences like Wannsee in 1942 and based on a well-developed, pseudo-scientific ideology of race. Rwanda was more a crude manipulation of traditional tribal hate, group hate or race hate, stoked by a century of colonialist policies.

Or take the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic was widely portrayed as Hitler, but the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague has admitted it lacks evidence to prove him guilty of genocide in the way that Hitler was. Both war-crimes tribunals, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, have tended to mirror the victors’ justice of Nuremberg, in the sense that the major atrocities are all assumed to have been on one side. But if you start with that conclusion, you will likely miss or distort the reality.

As for invoking Hitler, during the first Iraq war, Bush the elder sometimes said Saddam Hussein was even worse than Hitler. When a Toronto Star reporter asked him to explain that, the U.S. president urged Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney to have her fired. Now that Saddam can no longer be blamed for current resistance in Iraq, a Bush apologist on PBS has described Shia imam Muqtada al-Sadr, whose father was murdered by Saddam, as a potential Hitler.

Enough already. Well, one more example, in a lighter vein: I spoke in Halifax recently on the importance of “Respectful Disagreements.” I cited as examples from my own battles, George Grant (in whose honour the lecture was named), Emil Fackenheim, Conrad Black, the right, the left and Walt Disney. The first questioner asked if I would respectfully disagree with Hitler. I shudder to suggest this, but maybe it’s time for a Hitler break in public discourse, in order to let the intellectuals and politicians rearm themselves terminologically.

A different kind of silence: Consider the existential element in Wednesday’s Bush-Sharon agreement, by which the United States agreed Israel does not need to give up land it conquered in 1967, and owes no right of return to those who lost their homes. By existential, I mean the respect and attention paid to Palestinian existence, collectively and individually. It was as if two parties in a room had decided to negate the needs and rights of a third, while refusing to acknowledge that party was even in the room.

Nothing drives people to rage and despair like being discussed while being ignored. In some ways, it is worse than a beating; a beating at least requires acknowledgment of your presence.

For decades, Israel and the U.S. withheld that recognition. Golda Meir said there was no such thing as a Palestinian. The main achievement of the 1993 Oslo accords, for Palestinians, was sheer recognition. Soon after, Israel began debating whether a partner for peace existed on the Palestinian side, a condescending attitude toward Palestinians who had made their own choice. Any allegiance that clings to the corrupt and incompetent Yasser Arafat exists because he is linked to that fragile, battered sense of Palestinian self-respect.

This kind of contempt is all about power. Israel and the United States do it because they can get away with it. They must fear that if Palestinians ever acquired even vaguely comparable power, they would respond in kind. So the need to hold them down and keep them down, grows more pressing than ever.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.