“There’s a seduction in fanaticism. It simplifies things. The leader decides everything for you and suddenly you have no more problems.”
Those wise words are from Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel who passed at 87 on Saturday. An Auschwitz survivor, Wiesel became a prolific writer of speeches, essays and books on the topic of the Holocaust. In an interview with the Academy of Achievement in 1996, he said, “I am among the first, if not the first to use (Holocaust) in that context . . .Then it became accepted, and everybody used it and then I stopped using it because it was abused.” He was understandably appalled when a sportscaster used it to describe the defeat of a sports team.
Fanaticism has been on my mind lately. Not only is our daily news plastered with it, I’ve just finished reading a couple of tough books: Shake Hands With The Devil by Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire (with Major Brent Beardsley), which is about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett, which is an incredibly well-written account of Lindhout’s capture in Somalia in 2008, where she was held hostage for 15 months.
You research such things – the brutal slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans in 100 days and the literal dark captivity, which included rape and torture, of a beautiful young Canadian woman – and you come away realizing that there are worse things than death. In Rwanda, it was the method of death, the machete. Says Shaharyar M. Khan, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations (SRSG), “The fact is that never in living history has such wanton brutality been inflicted by human beings on their fellow creatures (as in Rwanda) . . . even the killing fields of Cambodia and Bosnia pale before the gruesome, awful depravity of massacres in Rwanda.” When killing Tutsi children? The extremists, in front of the child’s parents, would cut off an arm, then the other, then gash the neck for a slow death, but that wasn’t even enough. They’d then cut off the child’s private parts, throw them in the face of the terrified parents, then murder the parents a bit quicker.
This behaviour, to me, is beyond belief. I was similarly rocked to the core after reading about Lindhout’s torture. Why read it then? Why not just leave those kinds of books on the shelves? Why not just carry on, enjoying summer’s sun, our great and plentiful lifestyle here in Canada?
Well, because I believe knowledge is power. Wiesel believed that too, made it his mission to remind us of our mistakes, but since Rwanda and Somalia came after WWII it obviously didn’t work. He says, “Human nature remained what it was. Society remained what it was. Too much indifference in the world, to the Other, his pain, and anguish and hope.”
Despite disappointments in their work, both Wiesel and Dallaire have advice to offer. Says Wiesel, “Whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation, take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Dallaire offers up an interesting representation of our global world used by teachers at the Canadian Forces Peace Support Training Centre: “If the entire population of the planet is represented by 100 people, 57 live in Asia, 21 in Europe, 14 in North and South America, and 8 in Africa. The numbers of Asians and Africans are increasing every year while the number of Europeans and North Americans is decreasing. Fifty percent of the wealth of the world is in the hands of 6 people, all of whom are American. Seventy people are unable to read or write. Fifty suffer from malnutrition due to insufficient nutrition. Thirty-five do not have access to safe drinking water. Eighty live in sub-standard housing. Only 1 has a university or college education. Most of the population of the globe live in substantially different circumstances than those we in the First World take for granted.”
Wow. That puts a lot into perspective, doesn’t it?
Says Dallaire, “The global village is deteriorating at a rapid pace, and in the children of the world the result is rage.”
That rage stems from so many things – poverty, hunger, heightened tribalism, economic collapses, brutal and corrupt military dictatorships – it goes on and on, but a child with no hope for a future is a child who will likely resort to violence to get what he needs. Going forward, this is Dallaire’s hope: “We have lived through centuries of enlightenment, reason, revolution, industrialization, and globalization. No matter how idealistic the aim sounds, this new century must become the Century of Humanity, when we as human beings rise above race, creed, colour, religion and national self-interest and put the good of humanity above the good of our own tribe. For the sake of the children and of our future.”
When I picked up Lindhout’s book about Somalia, I didn’t initially understand why she would risk travel to such a place. But she was young and naïve and optimistic. Like here, she saw beauty in the land, witnessed parents loving their children.
She says, “I think often about the boys who held me hostage. How could I not? My feelings about them can’t be easily measured or fixed, especially as time goes by . . . I understand that those boys and even the leaders of the group were products of their environment – a violent, seemingly unending war that has orphaned thousands of children and reaches back over twenty years now.”
If you try to get to the root of most major battles you’ll encounter deep-seated complexities built up over years. Hell, the Jews have been persecuted for millennia.
I know from all of my spiritual seeking that the moment you think you are better than another, you’re hooped. We are one. That’s not fanatical, but it’s pretty darn simple. For Humanity’s sake, let’s hope we can figure out how to make this our Century.