Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Cheese Sandwich

In the course of working on a paper on dehumanization and human rights abuses, I picked up a book that I had read several years ago--We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Although depressing (as all books on the Rwandan genocide must be), the book is well worth reading.

While skimming the book to find Gourevitch's descriptions of the dehumanizing propaganda that was employed to incite killing (the book has no index), I came across this passage (pp. 170-71):

I was reminded of a conversation I had with an American military intelligence officer who was having a supper of Jack Daniel's and Coca-Cola at a Kigali bar.

"I hear you're interested in genocide," the American said. "Do you know what genocide is?"

I asked him to tell me.

"A cheese sandwich," he said. "Write it down. Genocide is a cheese sandwich."

I asked him how he figured that.

"What does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?" he said. "Genocide, genocide, genocide. Cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich, cheese sandwich. Who gives a shit? Crimes against humanity. Where's humanity? Who's humanity? You? Me? Did you see a crime committed against you? Hey, just a million Rwandans. Did you ever hear about the Genocide Convention?"

I said I had.

"That convention," the American at the bar said, "makes a nice wrapping for a cheese sandwich."

What if the military intelligence officer was right? What if our concern about genocide, when it comes right down to it, is no greater than our concern about a cheese sandwich?


cathrinahrens said...

Unfortunately, to many Americans (and the world), Human Rights and dignity really is nothing more than a cheese sandwich. I am fully discouraged by a discussion in one of my classes this week in which practically the entire class said to heck with human rights, all that matters is American self-interest. We will defend our arguments and passivity on the basis of state sovereignty, but really, we just don't give a damn. If it easier to let abuses go unchecked, then so be it. The world would rather disregard our obligations outlined in numerous treaties than to take on a difficult situation and stand up for what is right.

Only, it is easy to be apathetic when we are sitting in America, in a country where we generally don't have to worry about our basic human dignity being respected. The quote from the Ghosts of Rwanda was so tragically true: "the US has no friends; the US has interests. The US has no interest in Africa." Human rights doesn't mean crap to us to when ours aren't being threatened. We said we would never let another Holocaust happen, we came up with idealistic conventions to check states, then Rwanda happened, now Sudan is happening - 800,000 and another 2 million plus - and it means nothing to us. The Genocide COnvention is just a joke to the Hutus and the Janjiweed - and why shouldn't it be? We've given them no indication that it is actually more than a naive ideal.

Robert E. Williams said...

I always appreciate your comments, Cathrin.

Like you, I thought of Sudan when reading the "cheese sandwich" discussion. But I also thought of the Johns Hopkins University study in The Lancet that suggests that as many as 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the Iraq War. It's not that I would call the war in Iraq a genocide or equate American policy with what the Sudanese government has done in Darfur; if we are to speak coherently about morality, we have to respect important moral distinctions and avoid using important categories--such as "genocide"--indiscriminately. I would, however, suggest that we are shockingly indifferent to all kinds of large-scale killing.

Meagan Butler said...

In response to Cathrin's passionate thoughts, here's a question to add to the mix: Why is there a disconnect between American self-interest and the state of human rights worldwide? Is it not in one’s own best interest to aid other nations and add to the stability of the world?

I cannot help but be reminded of the line from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail where he wrote, “moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Although Dr. King was specifically commenting on domestic policies, I think a strong case can be made for this idea within a global context. Human rights abuses ARE a threat to us all (at least indirectly), and therefore we should act out of “American self-interest,” if not loving concern, on behalf of the oppressed.

Robert E. Williams said...

Thanks for your comment, Meagan. Having just returned from Birmingham (and a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute), I especially appreciate the lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.

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