Shake Hands with the Devil: Book Review
This was probably one of the the most difficult and disturbing books I have ever read. That had nothing to do with big words and everything to do with two things. First, reading page after page of the unimaginable evil that people committed, and two, reading page after page about those that stayed on the sidelines and watched it happen.
The full title of the book says it all, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. The book was written by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who was the UN Force Commander in Rwanda from 1993-1994. The first part of the book reviews his upbringing and background before going to Rwanda, but most of the book is spent describing in great detail the year that he spent on the ground.
Some might be asking why they should even consider reading this book and that is a great question. The answer is very simple. Genocide and ethnic warfare is not going away anytime soon. Since the events in Rwanda we have seen civil war and ethnic conflict in the Congo, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and many other places. We cannot ignore these things just think they will go away. We need to understand them and we need to figure out how the world needs to respond in these situations.
The genocide began on April 7, 1994. The death toll, which was estimated at 200,000 by the end of April, reached 500,000 by the end of May and 800,000 by the last day of June (pg. 375). You could ask the questions, how could the world allow something like this to happen and who is to blame, however I would agree with Mr. Dallaire that there is too much at stake to continue to debate these questions. He says,
Instead, we need to study how the genocide happened not from the perspective of assigning blame – there is too much to go around – but from the perspective of how we are going to take concrete steps to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. To properly mourn the dead and respect the potential of the living, we need accountability, not blame. We need to eliminate from this earth the impunity with which the genocidaires were able to act, and re-emphasize the principle of justice for all, so that no once for even a moment will make the ethical and moral mistake of ranking some humans as more human than others, a mistake that the international community endorsed by its indifference in 1994 (pg. 513)
The sad thing is, we have done a poor job of this. Since 1994 millions of people have died in conflicts all throughout the great lakes region of Africa and yet we have done very little to end the bloodshed.
Mr. Dallaire states two reasons for this. The first is that many peacekeeping nations have gotten into the habit of acting only when international public opinion supports such an action. The problem here is that that is a “dangerous path that leads to a moral relativism in which a country risks losing sight of the difference between good and evil.” Secondly, and I have been saying this for years, missions are now being judged as to whether it is “worth” risking the lives of a nation’s soldiers. He quotes Michael Ignatieff as saying
riskless warfare in pursuit of human rights is a moral contradiction. The concept of human rights assumes that all human life is of equal value. Risk-free warfare presumes that our lives matter more than those we are intervening to save. (pg 517)
By our actions we are stating that our lives are worth more than the lives of other people in our world.
We are also under the mistaken belief that other country’s problems are their own and that they do not affect us, but that could not be further from the truth. He says,
We have to take concrete steps to remove the causes of their [youth in the developing world] rage, or we have to be prepared to suffer the consequences…Human beings who have no rights, no security, no future, no hope and no means to survive are a desperate group who will do desperate things to take what they believe they need and deserve. (pg. 521)
Hope. It is a very powerful thing. Without it, people will do almost anything. With it, people can go through anything.
Mr. Dallaire holds out hope that we in the developed world will change our ways and seek to bring hope to those that do not have it in the developing world. That we will view all lives as equal to our own and step up and do what is necessary to bring peace. I hold that hope as well, but it will not be easy.