World view - Michela Wrong asks a murderous question

Told your country was in danger, and your sister-in-law was one of its enemies, could you kill her a

During a private screening of the film Hotel Rwanda, which has just opened in London, sniffs and throat-clearings, accompanied by the discreet extraction of tissues from pockets, spread through the audience faster than an outbreak of avian flu. The film powerfully conveys the sense of gut-wrenching dread that built up as the genocide of more than half a million Tutsis got under way. Many of those watching had either been in Rwanda during the original events or had lost family members. When various worthies rose to speak, their voices quavered.

I snivelled with the rest. But on the way home, I managed to get enough distance on the experience to register that the film had failed my personal litmus test. Hotel Rwanda shows us the face of pure evil, made flesh in the Hutu militia groups that organised the 1994 massacres and their allies in the Rwandan army. In this, it accurately reflects how the journalists, aid workers and diplomats in Rwanda saw the situation at the time. But it fails to give us any real inkling of what was going on in the minds of the ordinary, God-fearing Hutus - Rwanda was one of Africa's most devout nations - who were co-opted into this collective killing spree.

If someone from the council came round and told you your sister-in-law was suspected of being an enemy of the state, how would you react? Imagine that this official, a man whose judgement you respect, then explains that national security demands her elimination. Worst of all, because the country is in immediate danger, you will have to do the job yourself, he explains. You will have to take whatever tool is closest to hand - a garden hoe, for example, or that kitchen knife - go to your sister-in-law's house and cut her throat. And while you're there, you had better despatch her two children, those adorable kids who call you "auntie" and play on your lap. Could you do it?

No, I would like to think, not even if I loathed the woman, resented her children and fancied her house. But in Rwanda they did. In their tens of thousands. Thanks to a compliant Hutu peasantry, the Interahamwe militiamen and the army succeeded in despatching up to 850,000 Tutsis in three months, the fastest genocide in history. As the two ethnic groups were heavily intermixed, neighbour was called upon to kill neighbour, husband to slaughter wife, friend to chop down drinking buddy. And with some exceptions, they obliged. Why? It was probably through a mixture of greed, fear, lust, knee-jerk obedience and sheer passivity. But I'm just guessing. Dozens of books have been written about what it was like to be a Tutsi victim, a human rights worker, Canadian army officer or UN official during the genocide. I've yet to read one that offers a Hutu perspective on this ghastly episode. But then, I've yet to see a film about Nazism which really explores why so many ordinary Germans joined the movement, or a documentary about fascism which explains why so many

Italians - and foreign statesmen - thought Benito Mussolini was a good thing.

Mass horrors happen not because a few psychopaths embrace evil - psychopaths are always around - but because a society momentarily lets them have their way. It is this aspect of human behaviour that remains the most intriguing, the most rewarding to explore, the most challenging to understand. Yet it is almost always ignored by writers, documentary-makers and film directors.

The entertainment industry has no tolerance for moral blurring, no patience with the wrenching ethical dilemmas history throws our way. It is easier to portray the Nazis and fascists as glazed-eyes thugs and sniggering sadists, as Steven Spielberg and Bernardo Bertolucci do, than admit that respectable members of the community signed up for the cause, for what seemed at the time good reasons. To pursue that uneasy line of inquiry is to acknowledge the potential for evil we each hold within ourselves.

So we wrap ourselves in a warm blanket of empathy for the victims, revel in our collective hatred for the oppressors, and conveniently forget that in occupied Europe during the Second World War, more upstanding citizens signed up as collaborators than joined the Resistance. We self-righteously lambaste European politicians and Hollywood stars for their "Nazi" or "fascist" antecedents, as though the ideology that nearly swallowed up Europe was no more than a minority phenomenon.

It makes us feel smug, but it doesn't teach us much about human nature, or ourselves. The truth is that the behaviour of a lynch mob is intrinsically more interesting than that of a genocidal militia. If we want to ensure that "never again" becomes more than just a mantra, we would be better off trying to crack the puzzle of what makes the decent, law-abiding collaborator tick, than emoting over the perfectly understandable behaviour of the brutish concentration-camp chief.

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