That’s right. If one thinks about it: If there are 800,000 people who have been murdered, that would in principle mean that by our idea of justice there are 800,000 murder cases that need to be tried, and our system of justice would be taxed beyond its capacity, so certainly Rwanda’s would be as well.
You’re told over and over, as you write in the book, that Rwandans never tell the truth. And at different points you write about people exaggerating to you, lying to you, telling you stories. How did you find the truth?
A lot of things about Rwanda are like the rest of the world except a lot more so, because it’s so extreme and so complicated. And one has to presume, not that one is getting it straight right away, but that one doesn’t know. You have to be suspicious of your own knowledge. But with time you basically find that certain things are confirmable. Sometimes in the refugee camps [where the Hutus, many of whom participated in the killings of the Tutsis, retreated after the genocide] I would talk to people, and they would say, "You know, there are two sides to every story. You must be objective." And I would say, "That’s true. But one has to not confuse objectivity with neutrality." I sometimes clung to the line that the novelist William Gaddis has in one of his books: Keep an open mind and your brains will fall out.
I picked up this book primarily because I wanted to understand — in the context of what’s going on in Kosovo — how people live together and intermarry and have family and friends and neighbors and doctors who are this "other" and everything is fine, and suddenly everything isn’t fine and people are killing one another or completely rejecting one another. And that, to me, fundamentally, is where the similarity lies between Rwanda and Kosovo. I was hoping that your book might help me understand how that happens, but it didn’t.
I think on some level one has to respect that mystery. I can explain how it happened, and I can show the many elements that contributed to making it possible, and yet in the end there’s still this mystery. With time, I think, people can be made bad. It’s quite clear. The less information they have, the more narrowly they’re confined, the more they’re sort of programmed to it, they’re conditioned in this Clockwork Orange–y sort of way. That helps explain it. But I think even Rwandans are totally bewildered by it. They sit there and they explain all the mechanisms of the old mentality: the dictatorship and the economic conditions and all the different factors that made the people pliable and how the plying was done. But in the end, I think, even they are bewildered — and spooked. In the end, I think, there really isn’t an answer.
Philip Gourevitch will speak on "Rwanda’s False Histories: The Logic of Genocide" at the Getty Center on Monday, May 3, at 3:30 p.m. He will read from his book at the Los Angeles Central Library at 7 p.m.