The Narrative People

Last night I watched a movie about Rwandan genocide that made me sick. Especially the scene showing hapless UN soldiers who had been ordered to withdraw being confronted by the doomed Tutsis they refused to protect. The Tutsis were already surrounded by gleeful Hutus waving machetes while gloating in anticipation. One Tutsi leader begged a UN officer to shoot his people first so that they would not have to endure the slower and more painful death by hacking. When the officer refused to do that, the man begged him to at least take pity on the children and shoot them. Obviously, the officer refused, and he said, "I am sorry, I cannot help you." (Interesting play on the word "help.")

A more savage and disturbing irony was that the UN troops did at least help the white people escape. It's as if that's what they were there to do. Along the lines of

"We might not be able to stop black-on-black genocide, but we can save the white people."

Of course, the Clinton administration was in power, and doing nothing about Rwanda while saying they were doing everything they could was the official position. It was also the official position that what was happening was not genocide. Oh, no. Genocide meant Nazi Germany, which we cannot allow to ever happen again. And the best way to make sure genocide never happened again was to not call genocide genocide.

So, even though the Clinton administration knew -- and I mean specifically knew -- about the "final solution to eliminate all Tutsis," orders were given to ignore it, and above all to not use narrative-spoiling words like "genocide." This made it easier not only to ignore the genocide, but to do things which actually helped enable it:

the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term "genocide," for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing "to try to limit what occurred." Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.
The trouble with the word "genocide" is that it automatically triggers the "NEVER AGAIN" narrative (as well as the additional "Something Must Be Done" narrative). Hence the word could not be used.
The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about "never again," many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen. In examining how and why the United States failed Rwanda, we see that without strong leadership the system will incline toward risk-averse policy choices. We also see that with the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Rwanda taken off the table early on--and with crises elsewhere in the world unfolding--the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved. Domestic political forces that might have pressed for action were absent. And most U.S. officials opposed to American involvement in Rwanda were firmly convinced that they were doing all they could--and, most important, all they should--in light of competing American interests and a highly circumscribed understanding of what was "possible" for the United States to do.
It's bad enough that genocide did in fact happen again, and while this is to the eternal shame of the Clinton administration, it shows how easily these things are enabled, and turned off and on, by the simple Narrative mechanism. The Narrative controls everything. So in order to justify doing or not doing something the Narrative People have only to make the right adjustments in the Narrative. Even the Nazis had to do this, because killing people becomes much easier when people are not people. Jews were subhuman like rats, and when someone is less than human, then killing is not murder of a human being.

Obviously, Clinton's Narrative People could not say that Tutsis were less than human as a justification for ignoring genocide or saving only the white people (because that would have been racism), so they had to make the adjustment by simple editing out the G-word.

In what I think is a true classic of rhetorical gobbledygook, here's Clinton's spokesperson Christine Shelley, explaining why she is unable to use the word genocide to describe the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis:

So now that the Narrative People have admitted it was genocide, what are the implication to "NEVER AGAIN"? That narratives just come and go?

And who precisely are the Narrative People?

I worry that most of us either are narrative people, or have a tendency to become narrative people, because in the broad sense Narrative is simply an agreed upon story.

That Which We Want To Be True.

Or more specifically:

Words Which We Want To Believe Are True.

All of us want certain things to be true, so there is enormous temptation to believe in what we want.

At the risk of what is.

I don't mean to imply that all Narratives suck, though, because some Narratives are actually true. The problem with them is that if you're a real Narrative Person, they don't have to be true. It's just that for a Narrative Person, truth is not pursued for its own sake, but as a helpful factor in assisting the Narrative.

Narratives tend to become bandwagons, and once that happens, those who take issue with them are considered "enemies" by those who believe.

If you're uneasy with Narratives and don't like Narrative People, what do you do where it comes to politics? If you pick one side or the other, is it fair to say that you should be duty-bound to honor that side's Narratives? I don't think it is fair, but I have learned that questioning people's narratives is no way to get ahead in politics or in life.

(I probably should shut up now and go back to the comfort of configuring operating systems. No Narrative there; things either work or they don't. There's something addictive about that. OTOH, Narratives are the operating systems of politics, and I guess they're at least as addictive... Um, until they crash.)

posted by Eric on 05.22.10 at 02:03 PM


Radio talker Dennis Prager has said in the past that everyone has an agenda. Unfortunately, the truth is usually not at the top of the agenda.

Randy   ·  May 22, 2010 10:48 PM

The next entry fits right in.

M. Simon   ·  May 23, 2010 12:49 AM

I can understand indifference - what was the motivation for actively stopping UN intervention?

Rwanda isn't exactly a powerful, strategic, or resource-rich corner of the world...

Ben-David   ·  May 23, 2010 5:49 PM

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