The horrible evidence of what Kant variously called the wickedness, corruption and perversity of the human heart is, unfortunately, not encountered only in memory, it is also met with among our current experiences. We are daily obliged to witness fresh atrocities as ethnic and racial hatreds seek to express themselves in the annihilation of their proponents’ enemies. (Copjec, 1996;9)
The above quote effectively demonstrates that debates on evil are not only still suitable for the issues emerging in a post-modern world, but are perhaps more suitable than ever before. The film which I will be discussing, Hotel Rwanda (2004), relates the true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a man who sheltered over a thousand refugees in the hotel he managed during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The film is useful as a focus point for the discussion of evil since the situation surrounding the events that took place during those months are often referred to in terms of evil – not only on the part of the Hutu militia that perpetrated the atrocities, but also of the international community and the UN in particular, which did not intervene to stop the massacre – and it would be useful to analyse a couple of key points in this film more closely.
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...