Last week, I heard a story on BBC News Hour that I wish I hadn’t. It was about a mass killing in a small village in Guatemala. The incident happened decades ago, though I don’t recall having heard about it before.
The newscaster—in his matter-of-fact tone, with his authoritative British accent—spoke of acts so brutal that I cried as I heard them described, moaned as if I’d been wounded. I had to choke away the visceral emotion because I was driving, but the story shook me up for some time afterward. The magnitude of the violence done to men, women, and children was/is just so incomprehensible. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could come to the place where they could do such unspeakable things.
I’ll give you the (abridged, edited) Wikipedia version. Warning: if you don’t know this story, prepare to be disturbed … don’t read it if you are hyper-sensitive to the suffering of others.
On the 6th of December 1982, during the de facto presidency of General Efraín Ríos Montt, around 250 people – including women, the elderly, and children – were killed in Dos Erres by commandos working as government forces as a part of the government’s “scorched earth” policy.
In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children’s heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with sledgehammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout 7 December. On the morning of 8 December, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. They kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them.
This is such a heart-wrenching story. It’s crushingly sad. I could hear the weeping and the screaming and the pleading of the villagers (especially the children) as they witnessed these horrors and begged not to be killed. Yet the hammer blows were delivered, the bodies mauled, the corpses tossed in the well. One after another, as if they were no more than garbage. The “how could any human being do this to other human beings” question kept gnawing at me as I tried to get those heinous images and (imagined) sounds out of my mind.
Fear, I suppose is the only answer that makes any sense (truthfully, the reality of this incident makes no rational sense, but it happened so I suppose we are forced to analyze it, try to understand it). One assumes this General Montt was a man to be feared. One assumes it was made clear to the soldiers that if they didn’t exterminate everyone they would be killed, maybe their families too. Did they have to use sledgehammers? (As a matter of degree, shooting seems like it would have been a more “humane” style of execution, though still abominable.) Perhaps even the raping was part of the “scorched earth” policy. Or did the soldiers just do that because they could? No one could stop them. No one was going to survive to give testimony.
Of course, as appalling as this incident is, it pales in comparison (in terms of magnitude) to the Rwandan genocide, or the atrocities committed by Europeans against Native Americans, or the systematic extermination of Jews during the holocaust, or the American enslavement of Africans.
How can people do such things to other people?
One of the steps that leads to genocide is the reduction of “the other” to less-than-human status. Give them a name that robs them of humanity: cockroach (against the Tutsi), savage or redskin (against Native Americans), Untermensch or “subhuman” (against Jews), n-word (against enslaved Africans). In Mein Kampf, Hitler called jews “parasites,” he said, “The Jew is a planetary bacillus.”
It’s easier to mistreat or kill a cockroach than a person.
On being “named,” author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.”[i]
Mass killings happen for different reasons in different social and historical contexts but, at the bottom of them all—aside from simple, good-old-fashioned bigotry—is a drive to gain or preserve dominance over land and resources. In other words, it’s about power.
Are you a Hutu who doesn’t want to share political power or scarce resources and economic opportunity with your Tutsi neighbors? All you have to do is slaughter them (800,000 slain in 100 days), so you won’t have to.
Don’t want to share the land with the native population when your ships arrive at their shores? After they’re nearly wiped-out by the diseases you brought with you, you can see to it that the rest are eliminated or neutered as a threat through murder and dislocation. Then you can relegate them to a tiny spot of their own land and think of it is a kindness. Over the course of 500 years, you will have reduced their population from 10 million to 300,000.
Think that Jewish people are pretty much the reason for every bad thing happening in your country and the world? Set up an assembly line of mass murder. You can kill 11 million in a few years’ time if you really try.
Are you a European settler needing to get some back-breaking work done, but you don’t want to do it yourself? Go get yourself millions of black bodies from across the ocean. Beat them, rape and murder them into submission. Keep this going for 250 years, so you can build your so-called Democracy. The UN estimates 17 million of those black bodies died over that time period as a result of the slave trade.
We read these statistics and they boggle the mind. So many dead. So many murdered. In the end, it boils down to the seizing of power through dehumanization, subjugation, terrorizing, and murder of “the other.” Make them an object of fear, of disgust. Make them an obstacle to dominance. Pave your road to progress with their blood and bones.
With Dos Erres, Rwanda, the mass-elimination of Native Americans, the holocaust, and American slavery, we see varied combinations of violent bigotry according to skin tone: brown on brown, black on black, white on red, white on white, and white on black. This is human evil, the powerful oppressing the weak.
Examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” are far from limited to these. There are so many more. It’s hard to think about the harsh realities of all the violence in human history. Genghis Khan, Mao Tse Tung, Stalin, Idi Amin, the Khmer Rouge … all played their part. As did ordinary people who helped by carrying out orders or voluntarily aiding in the oppression and murder authorized by those in power.
Violence against, and oppression of, certain classifications of people is not limited to “long ago and far away.” Police brutality against African Americans is still happening. Institutionalized racism is still happening. Read the news. All across our country, and around the world, there are oppressed people groups. Nor is discrimination limited to the sphere of race. We discriminate against women, Muslims, albinos, the differently-gendered, homosexuals, those with disabilities … the list goes on and on.
How can we stop these injustices?
It seems like it ought to be so simple. The answers could be written on a message in a fortune cookie or on a postcard.
We’re all the same race: the human race. All of us have the same, intrinsic worth. All should be treated the same, given the same opportunity for education and economic success. Martin Luther King said it: judge people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Jesus said it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s not hard to articulate the answers, but it is hard to implement them. It’s hard to give up privilege and power.
It comes down to the human heart. Mine. Yours.
Can we see our own prejudices? Can we see how we contribute to racism by denying it, ignoring it, minimizing it?
I’m speaking to myself. I’m speaking to my white* friends, family, neighbors, and countrymen.
I have to wake up. We have to wake up, recognize the indelible and cruel injury we have done to our brothers and sisters of a darker hue. See that we have not sought to understand or empathize with those with different sexual orientation. Admit it. Out loud. Ask forgiveness. Extend a hand. Be part of a movement that insists we are all the same, a movement that seizes the mechanisms of established power and ultimately, permanently, bends the arc of our future moral universe toward justice. A justice that truly applies to all.
Educate yourself. Read Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Read Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop. Hear their voices. To the extent you can, enter into their suffering. Do some reading to help you understand LGBTQ issues. https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-best-lgbt-books-of-all-time/
These are starting places. This is the easy stuff. But if you let the reading change how you think and feel, even just a little, then you can say the journey forward has begun.
I’m still in these first steps. And I was moved to write this. This is my beginning.
*There is no white race. There are light-skinned people of many ethnic backgrounds. Whitness is a construct we have used to empower a majority based on an artificial unity relating to shared skin tone. This seems so obvious, yet it took Ta-Nehisi Coates to make me see it clearly.
[i] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me (Kindle Locations 1280-1282). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.