Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror (Saybrook Productions, WNET, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier in the week Charles and I had watched an hour-long documentary on PBS with the awkwardly long title Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror. What I hadn’t realized is that what we were watching was the last episode in a three-part series, dealing mostly with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the role of one of the original Nuremberg prosecutors in creating it, and also the special tribunal set up to punish Slobodan Milosevic and the other perpetrators of the genocides in the former republics of Yugoslavia (I write “genocides,” plural, because it seemed as if the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the breakaway “Republika Srpska” of Serbs within Bosnia were seemingly competing to kill the most people) and also the way the genocide in Rwanda against the minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus was dealt with. One of the things that struck me most about this show was the way the rhetoric used by the Serb, Croat and especially the Rwandan government used to incite their people to kill sounded awfully like the rhetoric President Trump is using against immigrants; the Hutu leaders of Rwanda called the Tutsis “cockroaches” and Trump has said Central American immigrants “infest” our country. Whether this is Trump’s intent or not, this kind of name-calling, dehumanizing rhetoric is the usual way genocide starts: compare people to insects, vermin or scum and you ready your population to kill them en masse

The other interesting point about this show was the Rwandan way of dealing with their genocide, which was so massive it was estimated that one-quarter of Rwanda’s 8 million people had participated in the killing. It seems to have dawned on the international community that it would be impossible to prosecute the murderers according to Western ideas of justice without decimating the population and continuing the hatreds that had sparked the killing in the first place. So the aid workers and the Rwandans themselves seized on a traditional tribal system of justice, the gacaca (pronounced “Guh-CHA-cha”), in which members of a tribal community themselves sit in judgment over an accused person and are more interested in determining whether the defendant is truly sorry for what he’s done than whether he can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have done it. The most poignant story dealt with a Tutsi man who had married a Hutu woman, gone to their family gatherings countless times, then ended up on the wrong side of the genocide when his brother-in-law became an enthusiastic death squad leader and racked up a huge number of casualties. The Tutsi barely escaped the murderous wrath of his brother-in-law when the mayor of their village abruptly changed from opposing the genocide to supporting it and even participating in it, and the Hutu brother-in-law claimed thousands of victims until he fled the country following the restoration of order and something resembling law. Then he returned and faced the gacaca court in his own district, with the brother-in-law who had fled for his life from him appearing as one of the key witnesses against him. The defendant eventually broke down, pleaded guilty and confessed, and he did a good enough job convincing the people sitting in judgment against him in the gacaca that he deserved a murder sentence of only 10 years instead of the 40 years genocide participants who didn’t confess were given. In the end, there’s a fascinating final scene in which the Tutsi victim reconciles with the Hutu brother-in-law who tried to kill him and they’re even going to family gatherings together again. Like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions — formed on the orders of the African National Congress under the country’s first Black President, Nelson Mandela — the gacacas aimed at reconstructing society and putting the past behind them more than punishing the perpetrators as a means of creating “closure” (a horrible term) for the victims — every time I hear a relative of a murdered family member tell a reporter they need to see the killer executed so they can have “closure,” I pity them for having not only suffered the loss of their loved one but themselves having curdled so much inside they need to see blood spilled to assuage their own pain. 

The gacacas are the good news in a program that otherwise is one of those all too common shows these days that depict the vileness of humanity with precious little evidence of its good: the International Criminal Court is a great idea on paper but, like the original League of Nations after World War I, it suffers from the refusal of the United States to participate. Even before Trump, the prospect of getting enough U.S. Senators to ratify the treaty creating the Court was so hopeless no President dared try to accomplish it — the main concern was the possibility that somewhere, somehow, some U.S. servicemember might actually be punished for a crime against humanity in a foreign tribunal, and the United States of America is too much of an empire ever to let its citizens be held to account overseas. (One demand the U.S. makes whenever it sites a military base in another country is that the host country’s government agrees not to prosecute U.S. servicemembers for any crime they may commit there; instead, the U.S. retains sole jurisdiction over the alleged misdeeds of its servicemembers. This was the main reason the U.S. didn’t stay in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration left office: the new Iraqi government wouldn’t give us the right of extraterritoriality and so the U.S. said fine, then you don’t get our continued presence in the country.) I still have a hard time with the whole concept of “international law” — one could say about international law what Mahatma Gandhi famously said about Western civilization, “It would be a good idea” — “international law” is nothing more than a set of norms countries pay lip service to, or don’t, and we currently have a U.S. President that in terms of civilized norms of how you deal with other countries not only breaks them but boasts about it — just as he’s said he not only wants to resume waterboarding accused terrorists but wants to do worse to them, in the sort of “gleeful cruelty” Jon Stewart, in a recent guest appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, said was the hallmark of virtually everything Donald Trump says or does.