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“It was a democratic genocide.”
Survivor of the Genocide Against the Tutsi, 2018

Every individual is capable of committing horrific acts of human rights violations under the “right” conditions.

My head is pressed back against the seat. With my eyes closed, the humid air of a rainy day, stiffened by a twenty-minute car ride, rests heavy in my lungs. I draw a deep breath, trying to reach the knot that has accumulated around my heart, the breadth of my chest restricted by the seatbelt. I slowly count down in my head, “3…2…1” and release warmed carbon dioxide. This is my attempt for self-preservation, in preparation for visiting the Murambi Genocide Memorial Center, a memorial site where after leaving the comfort of this car I will be directly confronted with over 1,000 preserved and displayed bodies of victims from the Genocide Against the Tutsi. Our experience on the grounds of Murambi began in a museum setting. Like other memorials visited during our time in Rwanda, we walked through a series of large, dark rooms separated by towering black walls that created a path where the narrative shifted with each turn, culminating into a confrontation with the personal impact of genocide. In these museums, we saw the same images of Hutu Power propagandist literature, translations of the same violent quotes delivered by prominent politicians, and we heard the same audio recordings of the infamous Radio Mille Collines playing on a loop to provide visitors with an experience of the urgent propaganda that once infiltrated every aspect of the public sphere. Each memorial presented these materials to support the nation’s reeducation program, which frames propagandist rhetoric as a central driver of genocidal violence. This strategic framework supports reunification efforts, as it shifts blame for the genocide away from the individual perpetrator towards the defeated Hutu Power regime.


Grounds of the Murambi Genocide Memorial Center

However, after walking the grounds of Murambi, a school campus originally constructed to give citizens an education in technical skills, and witnessing the preserved bodies of men, women, and children displayed in rooms that were originally erected for this purpose of education, the idea that propaganda alone could generate such unsparing violence on such an intimate level seemed oversimplified. I wanted—I felt like I needed—to know more about the internal psychological processes that could translate genocidal ideation into active participation in murder at such a great scale. What really struck me, hearing about how the 50,000 Tutsi slaughtered at the Murambi school campus died in April 1994, is how genocidal rhetoric was able to supersede even the most intimate personal relationships. How, I wondered, can people kill in this way? Here I attempt to provide an explanation to this question through the application of sociological theories. Theories that can explain how, under certain conditions, environmental factors can mobilize individuals to commit acts of genocidal violence.

The Genocide Against the Tutsi can be considered a horizontal genocide, as one of its key characteristics is the close social proximity many perpetrators shared with their victims. In other words, people often murdered neighbors, friends, even immediate family members, and half-siblings. It was not uncommon for perpetrators to kill people they personally knew. One factor that facilitated the cognitive disassociation that was necessary to kill in this manner was the rhetorical frame that cast Tutsi as biologically inferior peoples who posed a direct threat to the Hutu (Hatzfeld, 2003). Radio stations like RTLM would repeat the propagandist narrative that every Tutsi person was secretly providing support to the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2014). The RPF, a military comprised of Tutsi Rwandans who had fled outside the country in earlier massacres, which invaded Rwanda in 1990 to fight the rising Hutu Power forces, was seen as an insurgency of Tutsi that would reduce the majority Hutu population to economically and politically second-class citizens (Gourevitch, 1999).

Emile Durkheim’s Theory of Social Structure and Anomie can help illustrate how this perceived threat of RPF translated to violence at the micro-level. Durkheim states that humans suffer from an “unquenchable thirst” or greed for resources. The central responsibility of society, he argues, is to regulate this inherent tendency (Merton, 1938). Anomie results from the friction that is created when society is unable to preform this regulatory function (Merton, 1938). This failure of a society usually occurs during periods economic recession (Merton, 1938). We could say that anomie occurred in Rwanda, as many Hutus believed they had everything to lose with the return of Tutsi refugees (and this was not unreasonable, given that a Tutsi class had ruled Rwanda for much of the country’s postcolonial history). In retaliation, Hutu political leaders had built an educational apparatus that, for decades, enforced the idea that Tutsi were an inferior and potentially dangerous minority in Rwanda. But when such fears are stoked and mobilized through graphic language demonizing the alleged enemy as inhuman through propaganda, violence is a likely outcome.

The bureaucratic structure of Rwandan society can also provide an explanation of the environmental factors that facilitated the genocide. Within most communities, there was either a formal or informal vertical hierarchy operating through a militia-style organizational structure that coordinated activities from the village level to the provinces, to the national level (Hatzfeld, 2003). When the war began, civil society structures became the channels for political violence; officials from towns and villages were tasked to coordinate killings. And social status accompanied this. Many of the informal commanders of the Hutu militia and Interhamwe groups saw their positions as a method to garner a higher social standing among their peers (Fujii, 2009). The value of this perceived social benefit could explain how genocidal rhetoric was so easily accepted.

Routine Activities Theory explains how this bureaucratic structure motivated the rank-and-file to perpetrate acts of genocidal violence. This theory argues that violence is possible because society operates occurring to a normalized daily routine (Madero-Hernandez & Fisher, 2012) At the grassroots level environmental factors contributed to actions from genocidaires who were not in a leadership position. The probability of violence occurring in society through ordinary routines is amplified when three conditions are present: 1) an offender is prepared to commit violence; 2) there is a suitable target; and 3) there is an absence of guardianship (Madero-Hernandez & Fisher, 2012). Informal and formal militia groups provided many Hutu men with a normalized routine, for the first time, structured around the murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus (Hatzfeld, 2003). Given that all three factors were met in Rwanda (the first through cultivated through massive hate propaganda and state-sponsored training, the third by conditions of war), the murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus could be accomplished through a normalized routine.

It is impossible to highlight with certainty all the factors that cause a genocide like the one that Rwanda survived. This post has only identified a few possible explanations for the translation made between propagandist rhetoric and genocidal actions. The theories discussed here explain only a fraction of the internal processes required to murder an individual on the basis of ethnicity. I think it would take a lifetime to understand a phenomenon like “democratic genocide.” My experience at the Murambi Memorial Center has forced me to accept, however, the conclusion that every individual is capable of committing horrific acts of human rights violations under the “right” conditions. As horrific as this is, genocides probably won’t stop until we better understand—and learn to quickly respond to—the social, political, and psychological circumstances that can lead to mass killing.

Blake Schapiro

Blake Schapiro

Senior, Political Science

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