Before I leave for Uganda in 72 hours, I wanted to talk briefly about what compelled me to conduct this project.
I’ll confess up front: I don’t know much about Uganda or the media’s role in peace and conflict. But from the few books I have read on Uganda, the African media, and the conflict in northern Acholiland, I think this project will be fascinating.
Throughout my academic career, I have been drawn to topics that reveal the extent of mankind’s capacity for evil. In high school and college, I researched the Holocaust, Soviet Russia, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the conflict in Darfur, and the continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These conflicts shattered my sheltered, suburban world and made me wonder how such violence could continue in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Numerous scholars and psychologists have explored mankind’s capacity for evil. From Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) to Lee Ann Fujii’s Killing Neighbors: Webs of Violence in Rwanda (2009), much has been written about how people decide to murder strangers and loved ones alike.
I have read some of these works, but I still don’t understand how people decide to take someone’s life, to rape an innocent woman, or to force a mother to eat her child’s flesh. The prevalence of “auto-cannibalism” in the eastern Congo is just one example that people have an unlimited capacity to hurt one another (Kristof 2010).
What leads people to make such egregious decisions? This is a question that I will probably ask for the rest of my life. But there is also another question that is perhaps even more important. What drives some individuals to say “no” to a culture of violence, to protect the oppressed, and to love and forgive everyone—even their worst enemies?
In his profoundly important book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times (2012), Eyal Press asks this very question. He documents the background and thought processes of three individuals: an Austrian police officer who defied his superiors to allow Jewish refugees to escape from Germany, a Serb who risked his life to save his “enemies,” the Croats, and a member of the Israeli army who chose to face charges of treason rather than fight Palestinians in the Second Intifada.
These stories are inspiring, but they are also shockingly rare. Many of the German officers who refused to kill during the Holocaust were neither punished nor demoted—they were simply transferred to another unit. Because this seems like a small consequence compared to the moral gravity of executing innocent victims, why weren’t there more officers who took this route?
Despite their scarcity, stories of people refusing to commit violence fill me with hope. If we can learn why some people commit atrocities and others say “hell no,” I wonder if we can change the variables before people make that decision.
As Steven Pinker wrote in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), our world is more peaceful now than ever before. For centuries, nomadic tribes and empires waged war, and modern society almost imploded during World War II and the Cold War. Even the conflicts of Central Africa seem to be dying down—Uganda and Rwanda are peaceful and prosperous and South Sudan is tenuously stable.
We still have work to do, especially in the DRC, but there is good reason to be optimistic. Just as humans have the capacity to commit extraordinary evil, heroines and heroes have the ability to forgive, forget, and love one another.
A quote that I saw on Facebook today from historian and author Howard Zinn really sums this up:
“To be hopeful in bad times is not being foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of competition and cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
So cheers to the folks who are defying the bad that surrounds them. As I travel to Central Africa, I want to highlight their stories and ask dozens of questions. I don’t know what I’ll discover, but I hope to suppress my own biases and be as open-minded an observer as possible.