What can one person accomplish? According to Gourevitch’s narrative, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families,” a lot.
One man’s assassination started the cascade that led to the Rwandan genocide, and one man’s quick thinking saved a thousand Tutsi lives in the Hotel des Mille Collines.
The book is interspersed with other stories about the bravery – or cowardice – of individuals.
Most of the stories, unfortunately, represent cowardice. The response of the international community to the Rwandan genocide seems to be a story of repeated stupidity on the part of individuals and lack of interest on everyone else’s part.
The flickers of light in the dark saga in Rwanda itself were also due to individual action. Paul Rusesabagina’s willingness to barter and stand up for the lives of the people in his hotel – his conviction that living as a fool is a greater horror than death with honor – saved lives, and proves that one person who thinks on his feet and knows what he stands for has a lot of influence over history.
But Gourevitch’s story also shows that all too often we don’t stand up for anything, and we’d rather go along with the crowd than take a chance with integrity. The story is frustrating because in hindsight it is easy (I think) to see what people could have done to fix the “problem” of the Rwandan genocide before and during the event.
The fact that so few people in the situation considered it a problem makes me wonder how often we have followed that pattern of ignoring something that makes us uncomfortable and hoping it will disappear; unfortunately I’m sure it happens all the time and I wonder what could be done to change that.