So many times, after genocide, people and governments say “never again.” But according to Homi Bhabha, the 2009 Andrew W. Mellon/FHI Distinguished Lecturer, “Ethically, even aesthetically, we will lose our way if we don’t believe that it will happen again.”
Bhabha, a professor of the humanities at Harvard University, spoke Tuesday at the Nasher about Time, Agency, and the Banality of Evil. “I know that a man can become of an extraordinary wickedness very suddenly,” Bhabha said.
Bhabha focused on the events that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, in which more than 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu political moderates were killed in just a hundred days. The total death toll stretched toward a million. In this instance, genocide was sponsored by the government, the subject of intense propaganda and professional organization.
Bhabha described how a major factor in genocide is the apparatus of “neighborly power,” whereby neighbors become enemies, and ordinary things become instruments of evil. In Rwanda, farming implements were repurposed for murder, and criminals could be called away from their task by the ring of a dinner bell, only to resume the killing later.
“The neighbor is the aim of obsessive, excessive violence,” Bhabha said. A neighbor is not strange, yet not quite close. Many times, not only are people killed, but any record of their existence is destroyed. Survivors must struggle with the fact that their family photo albums have been burned, their tapes and records ripped apart. It is just one facet of the “sudden, mysterious destruction of civic society.”
The pressures of popular participation is another factor. “The non-wicked everyone has no special motives, but is capable of infinite evil,” Bhabha said.
“When there has been one genocide in the world, there can be another one... if the cause is still there. And we do not know what the cause is.” Most importantly, he emphasized, “Never say never again.”
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