TCS Daily


Welcome to the Hotel Rwanda

By Michael Totten - January 18, 2005 12:00 AM

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was brutally knifed to death in New York City while her neighbors watched from their windows. They heard her screams. They saw what was happening. Yet not one of them lifted a pinky to save her. There was plenty of time to call the police. But no one did, and people were shocked. It was quite a scandal in the United States at the time. The "Genovese Syndrome" was coined shortly thereafter to describe passive, even callous, indifference by witnesses to an atrocity.

Fast-forward three decades: More than 800,000 Rwandans were macheted to death by the rampaging "Hutu Power" militia in what was perhaps the most efficient, if primitive, campaign of genocide ever.

It is against this backdrop that Hotel Rwanda, a new film by Terry George, tells the true story of Paul Rusesabagina (brilliantly played by Don Cheadle), manager of a four-star luxury hotel in the capital.

Mr. Rusesabagina belongs to the Hutu majority. His wife and some of his friends and employees are part of the targeted Tutsi minority.

As the hurricane of violence rips through his country with unprecedented ferocity, he shields more than 1,200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus inside his hotel. Orphans, neighbors, friends, and family are tucked away in the rooms. The hotel becomes a refugee camp that still looks, on the surface, like a fancy resort for tourists and big-shots from abroad.

A cynical journalist played by Joaquin Phoenix catches a massacre on tape just down the street from the hotel. Paul is horrified, but because he's still in denial he's also relieved. Now, he thinks, Rwanda will be rescued from abroad.

The reporter knew then what we all know now: Rwanda would not be rescued. "If people see this footage," he says, "they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's terrible,' and they'll go on eating their dinners." War correspondents know all about the Genovese Syndrome whether they know what to call it or not.

Paul refused to give in to it. But almost everyone else who didn't actively participate in the massacre, with only a few noble exceptions, did.

Nick Nolte portrays Colonel Oliver in charge of the United Nations' peacekeeping mission on the ground when the violence breaks out. He, like Paul, is aghast at the country's descent into savagery. But he can't do much to stop it - the UN apparatchiks won't let him. His men are not allowed to fire their weapons. All they really can do is stand there and watch. "We're here as peacekeepers," he says, "not peacemakers."

The UN eventually gives up even on that. More soldiers are sent to Rwanda - to evacuate Europeans. Not a single Rwandan is allowed to be airlifted out. Colonel Oliver is enraged. "They're not going to stop this slaughter," he says to Paul. "You should spit in my face. ... We think you're dirt, Paul. ...You're not even a nigger. You're African."

It wasn't only UN officials who left Rwanda to the wolves. No Western country had any intention whatever to help out the Tutsis. France intervened - but took the side of the killers.

In the film, an American official is overheard on the radio repeatedly describing the atrocities as "acts of" genocide. She is challenged by a reporter. Is she not allowed to describe the slaughter simply as genocide? She was not. The U.S. government wouldn't allow itself to fully admit what was happening. Unqualified genocide, rather than weaselly "acts of" genocide, demands a response.

* * *

New Yorker reporter Philip Gourevitch traveled around Rwanda shortly after the war interviewing witnesses and compiling stories for his first book. He found the title in a letter written by a group of Tutsi pastors to their church president: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

In one of the early chapters he muses out loud:

"Like Leontius, the young Athenian in Plato, I presume you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some flicker of self-knowledge -- a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world."

He's right, isn't he? Not just about his own book, but about the "holocaust" genre in general. Why else would a film like Hotel Rwanda focus on a man like Paul instead of on the killers or victims? And why did Steven Spielberg zero in on Oscar Schindler for his own film Schindler's List? Adults need - and seek - role models almost as much as our children do. We watch these films and like to think we, too, would act like these men if we were in similar circumstances. But these are not common men. They are extraordinary.

Perhaps these stories have their intended effect. Maybe most of us in the West really would risk all and act like Paul Rusesabagina and Oscar Schindler. Maybe that's one of the reasons genocide happens in Rwanda these days and not California.

Still, I'm not so sure. Lessons on how to behave don't only apply to individuals. They also apply (at least they had better apply) to institutions and nation-states. If we belong to a civilization of would-be heroes in the face of savage atrocity, how can we explain our cold and shrugging inaction in the face of genocide that outpaced, if not outlasted, Hitler's and Pol Pot's?

Collectively, if not individually, we still succumb to the Genovese Syndrome. What was supposed to happen never again keeps happening over and over again. Hotel Rwanda doesn't provide any geopolitical answers. That is beyond the scope of a movie. But it does, at least, show great powers how not to behave in this world.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at http://michaeltotten.com.


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