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Could you, under any circumstance, be a merciless torturer, a serial rapist, a mass murderer? This month, which marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda and the 99th anniversary of the genocide of the Armenians, is as good a time to ask as any.

Each year, my graduate seminar on Rwanda learns that hundreds of thousands of perfectly ordinary Rwandan Hutu — peasants, farmers, teachers — were mobilized by their leaders to carry out the genocide of the country’s Tutsi minority. I challenge students to consider this question: Had they been a Hutu in Rwanda at that time, would they have joined the systematic slaughter of some three-quarters of all the Tutsi in the country, perhaps as many as a million souls?

Invariably, most are horrified by the very question. Often they are indignant. They, they insist, would never have been reduced to such inhuman behaviour. I tell them how impressed I am with their courage and decency, compared to all the ordinary men (and women too) who did participate. But how, they need to explain, did they escape being brainwashed by the steady diet of anti-Tutsi propaganda that they received from teachers and playmates, from hate radio and government officials? How did they resist believing all Tutsi were aliens who didn’t belong, cockroaches to be crushed under foot, rebels who threatened Hutu lives?

Uncooperative Hutu were threatened with excruciatingly painful death unless they proved their loyalty to the genocide conspiracy by killing their own best Tutsi friend, or, if intermarried, their spouse or even their child. Would my students have refused and died horribly? Would I?

Many would have read Jean Hatzfeld’s powerful little book Machete Season, reporting the French journalist’s interviews with ten confessed Hutu genocidaires. What is most striking is the absolute ordinariness of these men. This was truly the banality of evil, to use Hannah Arendt’s provocative description of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. How, my righteous students needed to ask themselves, did they emerge morally superior to these ten men, who one day in April 1994 found themselves massacring friends they had gone to church or the pub with only a day before?

And how too could these students have turned out so much better than the millions of Germans and other Europeans without whom the Holocaust could not have succeeded? Did they know Christopher Browning’s seminal study Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland? The title tells the story. Browning’s research revealed that this German battalion, which mercilessly slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews during the Second Word War, was actually composed of middle-aged, working-class men — the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, you might say — perfectly “ordinary men” who found themselves in the midst of historical forces over which they had no control.

In Japan too, as James Dawes shows in his recent study Evil Men, convicted Japanese war criminals whom Dawes interviewed could barely recognize their former selves. These “evil men” were actually quite ordinary men. Given the almost unimaginable atrocities these men inflicted on innocent victims, Dawes want to know — as should we all — how your average Japanese man became a sadistic monster.

As explained by a war criminal named Ebato-san, sounding for all the world like a Rwandan Hutu or a German Christian or a Turkish Muslim describing Armenians Christians: “From the time we were small we called Chinese people ‘dirty chinks,’ Russians ‘Ruskie pigs.’ We called Westerners ‘hairy barbarians,’ you know?” So no matter how many Chinese a Japanese soldier killed, or how savagely, “They didn’t think of it as being much different from killing a dog or a cat.”

Under the right circumstances, no one seems immune from this descent to barbarism, nor alas does it seem a particularly steep fall. As Nick Turse documents in Kill Anything That Moves: The real American war in Vietnam,a dehumanizing racism, encouraged at every level, pervaded American forces. “The drill instructors never referred to Vietnamese as such, one vet remembered. ‘They called them dinks, gooks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters, everything that would take away humanity…That they were less than human was clearly the message….They told us they’re not to be treated with any type of mercy.'” Obediently, often exuberantly, American soldiers killed or violated anything that moved, man, woman and child, no questions asked, just as the annihilators of Armenians, Jews and Tutsi did in their time.

Walt Kelly was one of America’s greatest cartoonists whose comic strip Pogo offered as brilliant an insight into human nature and the human condition as any social scientist. A natural humanist, Kelly knew you had to be taught to hate. Almost half a century ago, after the Holocaust, in the middle of the Vietnam war, before Rwanda, Pogo the Possum said it all:


This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: fotopedia/mrflip


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...