After World War II, it was believed that the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis would never be allowed to happen again, but events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to name but two examples, have proven that the potential for acts of evil of this magnitude to occur are not specific to one culture or even to a place in time, but are expressions of – to use the words of Immanuel Kant – ‘a natural propensity to evil’ (1960;20) that is embedded in the human race.
It might therefore prove useful to turn to psychoanalysis for a partial explanation with regards to how it is possible for people to change their behaviour in such radical ways, readily adopting new moral maxims that often oppose their previously adopted ones. According to Freud, when in a group situation, ‘the individual gives up his ego ideal and substitutes for it the group ideal as embodied in the leader’ The other members of the group are, according to this theory, ‘carried away with the rest by ‘suggestion’, that is to say, by means of identification’ (1921;161-162).
According to this theory, the group – small or large – surrenders its free will to that of the leader, which makes them less likely to make their own moral judgements with regards to their actions and more likely to blindly follow the leader as well as the other members of their group. The issues of identity and legitimisation are also crucial to understanding how the Hutus felt justified in brutally murdering their former friends and neighbours. As is explained in the film, tensions between Tutsis and Hutus were virtually nonexistent prior to the arrival of the Belgian colonists. The two ethnic groups are actually very similar – they speak the same language, inhabit the same areas and follow the same traditions…It was the Belgian colonists who saw Hutus and Tutsis as ‘distinct entities, and even produced identity cards classifying people according to their ethnicity’ (BBC News Website). In other words, there were no violent issues of ethnic difference until the Tutsis were made – to use the definition provided by Richard Kearney – into aliens”.
For Kearney, this term refers to ‘that experience of alterity associated with selection…or sometimes with suspicion’ (2000;101). He goes on to say that ‘Aliens proliferate where anxieties loom as to who we are and how we demarcate ourselves from others (who are not us)’ (2000;102). This means that, in order to legitimise their own identity, groups must necessarily create a group of ‘aliens’ with whom they can misidentify. The tendency to use members of this group as scapegoats and perceive them as threats is clearly demonstrated in the build-up to the Rwanda massacre.
As the economic situation in the country worsened, Tutsis were used to divert anger from the Hutu government. Subsequently, when the airplane carrying the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down, the incident was used to make Hutus feel as if they were under attack. As one Hutu – who actively took part in the massacre – later relates; ‘Because the RPF were blamed for the death of President Habyarimana, we thought that they had started with the high-ranking officials and that they were going to end up doing the same to us ordinary people’ (BBC News Website).
In other words, ‘When faced with a threatening outsider, the best mode of defence becomes attack’ (Kearney, 2000;104). The other side of evil as portrayed in the film, however, is the international community’s failure to act. The UN soldiers in Rwanda are portrayed as good people who have their hands tied, yet their refusal to go against their orders is portrayed almost as cowardice in that they are failing to ‘do what is right’ and use their weapons in order to save lives.
In a scene where the UN convoy – transporting refugees from the hotel to a secure camp – gets stopped at a militia roadblock, the refugees’ lives are in dire peril, and the fact that the soldiers will not shoot the Hutus that are about to kill unarmed men, women and children stands for what is now widely thought of as shameful unwillingness of the Western nations to recognise and stop the genocide. The outcome of this particular scene is that the UN soldiers do not use their weapons but most of the refugees are saved by the belatedly arrived local police force.
The outcome of the lack of intervention from Western nations was the death of an estimated 1 million people. The crucial question for the purpose of this paper is whether the actions of those soldiers were evil. It could be argued that if they had used their guns against their explicit orders, many lives could have been saved, but it could also be said, on the other hand, that this act would have give the hostile militias a justification to kill the UN soldiers as well, which would have saved even fewer lives.
In determining the evil nature of actions or people, should we consider first and foremost the intention or the consequence of action? It might prove useful at this point to outline a practical definition of morals in contrast to ethics in relation to this particular example. I would argue that morals are result-orientated whilst ethics in the true Kantian sense are interested solely in the consistent obedience of the law, a maxim which once adopted by an individual must be followed for its own sake, regardless of consequence or relative circumstances.
Whilst morals must consider a situation in light not only of the law, but also taking into account the surrounding circumstances and possible outcomes, ethics dictate that anything short of upholding the law for the law’s sake is evil. Within this framework it is then possible to argue that the soldier’s actions were ethical but not moral. While it would have been impossible for them not to consider the outcome of their action, we could conclude that their decision to uphold the law overrode their need to help the refugees.
Operating under a law that dictated that they would not use their weapons to protect the refugees, going against that would be – in Kantian terms – evil, as they would be breaking the law, and even if countless lives were saved as a result of that, Kant’s unforgiving sense of ethics would not spare them in the least, for the outcome of actions simply does not feature in his theoretical framework. By choosing to uphold the law the soldiers fulfil another crucial requirement of Kantian ethical behaviour (or as he calls it, the ‘moral law’); the categorical imperative.
In stating that one should never act except in such a way that they should will that their maxim should become universal law, Kant established that the most important factor of his ethics is consistency, as no double standards can be tolerated. It would seem reasonable to assume that the moral maxim of the soldiers in question is that violence without due procedure and full backing of the law is never justifiable.
With that in mind, it could be argued that they would be happy to see that moral maxim adopted as universal law, since a world in which this maxim was universally adopted would most probably not have seen the Rwanda genocide taking place. BIBLIOGRAPHY Copjec, J. (1996) (Ed. ) Radical Evil, Varso Books Freud, S. (1991) Civilization, Society and Religions: ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’, ‘Future of an Illusion’ and ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ (The Penguin Freud Library) Penguin Books Kant, I. 1960) Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, New York, Harper Collins Torchbooks, Australia Kearney, R. (2000) ‘Others and Aliens: Between Good and Evil’, in: Geddes, J. (Ed. ) Evil After Postmodernism: Histories, Narratives, and Ethics, Routledge Singer, P. (2004) The President of Good and Evil: Taking George W. Bush Seriously, London, Granta Books ‘Taken Over By Satan’ http://news. bbc. co. uk/1/hi/programmes/panorama/3582011. stm Accessed on 14/03/2006 ‘Rwanda: How the genocide happened’ http://news. bbc. co. uk/1/hi/world/africa/1288230. stm Accessed on 17/03/2006