Tuesday, January 9, 2007

What we will become tomorrow

This is my first post, so I suppose I should explain two things: first, the title of the blog and, second, why I'm blogging at all. I took this title from something Paul Rusesabagina said, "With my countrymen -- Rwandans -- you never know what they will become tomorrow." And in his country, it was true. In a 100 days, in the summer of 1994, around one million Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered mostly with machetes and gardening tools. The perpetrators were mostly "regular" people asked to kill, to do their "work" in eliminating the Tutsi cockroaches. Much has been written about why this took place in this tiny country in the Great Lakes region of Africa, pointing to colonialism, illiteracy, overpopulation, and any assortment of explanatory factors. Others have written extensively on the culture of obedience in Rwanda, most notable in the fetid squalor of the overflowing prison cells. In 1995, as many as nine prisoners were dying per day from diseases, all awaiting a trial that promised to be years in the coming - if at all. Bill Berkeley visited one of them, writing:

"My guide through the Kibungo prison was the elected leader of the prisoners, a thirty-eight-year-old former businessman named Joas Kaburame, himself accused of genocide... I asked Kaburame what seemed to me an obvious question: Was there ever any violence in this awful place?
'There are no fights,' he replied matter-of-factly, without a trace of irony, 'It's forbidden to fight. They must respect the rules.'
"This was the culture of obedience, chillingly illuminated, at the very heart of Rwanda's darkness: three thousand accused mass murderers packed in horrendous conditions like snakes in a bottle - and no violence."

All this is not to propose some answer to the question of Rwanda, but that the question exists in the first place. What would Rwandans become tomorrow? It wasn't written in stone. Some of the perpetrators would reply simply, "I was told to kill, so I killed. They don't tell me to kill, so I don't kill. If they asked me to kill again, I would kill again." Yet saying that it isn't written in stone is, in an odd way, as Philip Gourevitch noted, the most optimistic thing you could say about Rwanda. It meant there was hope.

And in the end, it's one of the most important questions we can ask of ourselves. We can't change our past, and obsessing over it is often a sure way to repeat it (certain that our past inevitably lays out a roadmap for our future, we ensure that it does). What we can do, and all we can do, is focus on the here-and-now, and build towards the tomorrow. We don't know what we will become tomorrow, which means we can become better, which means life is an open page and we can try to write what we will on it, which means we carry in ourselves a terrible and terrifying responsibility to live life artfully and well - or we and others will suffer the consequences of our negligence.

The second question, of why I'm blogging, is perhaps harder to answer. Most of the reasons people give for doing anything are vastly different than the actuals reason for doing anything. We put a nice, rational public face on our actions, as explanations for our deeds and misdeeds, but they rarely explain our actual motivations, which exist in the bizarre, almost indecipherable, world of our emotions and personal history, a world of magic and wonder, fear and terror, signs and symbols, of mystery. So almost any answer I give now will probably be at most partially true, and only partially honest. I'm blogging because I want to write fairly regularly again, about ideas and thoughts, philosophy and religion, and this seemed a forum to motivate myself to do it. But in reality, I'm probably blogging because I should be heading to Madras right now, and in some bizarre chain of connections, this seemed the proper response to not being there. And that's a puzzle I'm not sure I will ever fully be able to decipher.