Forgiveness for You, Vengeance for Us

From Andrew Sullivan`s blog, this post, which references a review of Inglourious Basterds by Daniel Mendelsohn (author of The Lost) reminded me of a moment in Philip Gourevitch’s excellent We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.

First, this passage during a meeting between Gourevitch and the future president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, many of whose fellow Tutsi were killed in the genocide in that country, gives context.

Once when we were talking about the genocide and the world’s response to it, General [Paul] Kagame said, “Some people even think we should not be affected. They think we are like animals, when you’ve lost some family, you can be consoled, given some bread and tea – and forget about it.” He chuckled. “Sometimes I think this is contempt for us. I used to quarrel with these Europeans who used to come, giving us cookies, telling us, ‘You should not do this, you don’t do this, do this.’ I said, ‘Don’t you have feelings?’ These feelings have affected people.”

Then, this simple description of watching two movies on the way to a blood-stained country, which I have never forgotten, and which gets called to mind again and again.

The first in-flight movie on my second-to-last trip to Rwanda, in February of 1997, was A Time to Kill. It is set in Mississippi, in the atmosphere Faulkner celebrated as “miasmic”. A couple of worthless white-trash rednecks are out drinking and driving. They abduct a young black girl, rape her, torture her, and leave her corpse in a field. They get caught and thrown in jail. The girl’s father doesn’t trust the local judiciary to do adequate justice, so he waits for the men to be brought in chains to the courthouse, steps out of the shadows with a shotgun, and blows them away. He is arrested for first-degree murder and put on trial. His culpability is never in question, but a clever young white lawyer – risking his reputation, his marriage, his life and that of his children – appeals to the jury’s sentiment, and the girl’s father is set free. That was the movie. It was pitched as a tale of racial and social healing. Triumph for the protagonists, and catharsis for the audience, and with the acquittal of the vigilante killer, whose action was understood by a jury of his peers to have achieved a higher degree of justice than he could have expected from the law.

The second in-flight movie was Sleepers. It is set in New York, in tough midtown neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen. Four kids play a prank that results in the accidental death of a passerby. They are sent to a reform school, where they are repeatedly gang-raped by the wardens. Then they are released. Years pass. One day, two of the original quartet encounter the warden who had been their chief tormenter in reform school, so they draw their handguns and blow him away. They are arrested. To the viewer, their culpability is never in question. But in court they deny everything, they say they were in church at the time of the murder. This alibi requires the testimony of a priest, who is also an alumnus of the terrible reform school. The priest is a man of great honesty. Before testifying, he swears on the Bible that he will tell the truth. Then he lies. The men are acquitted and released. It was another tale of the triumph of justice over the law; the priest’s lie was understood to have been an act of service to a higher truth.

Both movies had been quite popular in America – seen by millions of citizens. Apparently, the questions they raised struck a chord with their audience: What about you? Can you condemn these vigilante killers after such violations? Can you grieve for the scum they killed? Might not you do the same? These are fine issues to ponder. Still, I was troubled by the premise that the two movies shared: that the law and the courts are so incapable of fairly adjudicating the cases in question that it wasn’t worth bothering with them.

From earlier in the book, just prior to the description, a quote that stands out.

[Paul Kagame] had spent his life in central Africa, not fighting against what used to be called the “civilized world”, but fighting to join it.

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