The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Shake Hands With Ourselves

I remember the news reports from 12 years ago saying that there were killings happening in some country in Africa. Somewhere in the middle. At the time I thought exactly what most other people thought: "Oh man, that's horrible," but that was the extent of my involvement.

Then in 1999 I started to read about the genocide. I learned that 800,000 people had been slaughtered in three months (which, for you folks like me who are bad at math, is just under 9000 people per day, every day). I learned about the destabilizing effect of Burundi's internal struggles in 1993 and the problems in Uganda that lent unfavorable feelings to Rwanda. I read about the political assassination of the Rwandan president, his plane shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Of course I learned, after the fact like almost everyone else, about the burocratic nightmare of paperwork and red tape that, in part, facilitated the downfall of Rwandan society in 1994.

I read The Bone Woman by Clea Koff, a good book about a forensic anthropologist who goes, among other places, to Rwanda to recover bodies and evidence to use in the prosecution of those found responsible. The horrible things that the victims had done to them before they were killed made my stomach tight and my eyes tear up.

I read Shake Hands With the Devil, the account of the entire incident by United Nations commander Romeo Dallaire, which tore my insides out for the two weeks it took me to get through it. I would come home and my wife would say, "What's wrong with you? You look so sad today...", and I'd reply, "It's the book" - it's so difficult to read that I literally had to put the thing down to recover.

If ever there were a good reason to have unreasonable beliefs, Romeo Dallaire has it. He has seen (along with everyone else who was there) the depths of the human existence. He called his book Shake Hands With the Devil because he said that he knew now that there is a Heaven and a God because he has seen the Devil. He saw him in the eyes of the murderers during the genocide. After you've seen machetes and axes and guns and clubs do their terrible jobs on hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, you most likely revert to your youth and whatever gave you comfort, so, mentally, you can survive the ordeal. Dallaire had religion, so, logically to him, he made sense of the situation. Of course, he had (and I'm sure still has) his demons, which almost took his life and did lead to the suicide of his book's "shadow author", Sian Cansfield, after she heard so many stories of death and murder.

You have to accept that there is a God and a Devil if you are like M. Dallaire, because the alternative is much too frightening: that we are capable of that sort of destruction all on our lonesomes. It is part of us. To accept that we, the people, could take a baby's legs and swing it into a cement wall in front of it's parents, without any sort of demonic influence, is to say that we could do it again. That M. Dallaire almost lost the battle in his head tells me that he tried to justify his belief in some higher being and how, if this entity was up there and "all good", could it let so many innocent people meet such a terrible terrible end.

He seems to have reconciled this inconsistency with himself, but he has much more depth to his faith than I ever had in mine. I prefer simplicity which, sadly, means that it is just us down here. We have the ability to do amazingly good things to help each other and ensure that everyone has food, shelter, and access to medicine. The flipside is what happened in Rwanda twelve years ago, and if we take credit for the good (which we should), we also have to take responsiblilty for the very very bad. We must not blame the horrible things we do on the Devil, for the Devil is not something outside our doors - it is us.

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