Day 18: Cockroaches

Philip Gourevitch’s harrowing account of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, we regret to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, describes the environment in which an entire nation can be plunged into the nightmare of mass murder and violence against a minority group.

The killings seemed to happen overnight. Gourevitch notes that the swiftness of the violence – with 400,000 members of the Tutsi minority group slaughtered in an 8-day span – is unmatched in world history, even by murderous regimes like Nazi-era Germany.

But the author also indicates that the racial attitudes and hatreds were brewing for many years. Majority Hutus would refer to Tutsis as “cockroaches” in radio broadcasts. When the nation’s president died in a plane crash, plunging Rwanda into chaos, national leaders took to the airwaves and encouraged the Hutu population to “kill the cockroaches.” Tragically, the populace responded, sometimes butchering their own neighbors and co-workers with machetes.

Referring to a population as “cockroaches” or “rats” is the familiar language of dehumanization. And when a population is dehumanized, it becomes easy to strip them of rights, mistreat them, or even kill them. And while we may believe we are above genocide, our tendency to dehumanize continues. Populations are referred to as “wetbacks” or “leaches.” People with differing ideas are “extremists” or “radicals.” Democrats are “libtards.” Anyone with a head covering or an unusual last name is a “terrorist.”

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