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?