Staten Island Web logo



Interesting subject, virtues becoming vices when misused.

Here's an example I heard on NPR a day or two ago. The subject under discussion was why do we keep on seeing genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities. Don't we ever learn.

The writer being interviewed had written a book about genocide in Ruanda between the Hutus and the Tutsi tribes. The book is entitled something like "We wish to inform you that in the morning we are to be massacred with our families" from a letter one group wrote to the bishop seeking help. They were massacred. The bishop wound up in Texas, where he is now being prosecuted for something by federal authorities.

The writer (maybe I'll think of his name)recounts how, on a trip to Ruanda he and his companions, one night, heard a woman calling in the distance. The writer imitated the call, which was for help. It was an ululating series of whoops that carried far through the wooded hills. All of the neighbors came running, as they too, passed along the help call using the same call.

The woman who had called for help was being attacked by a man intent on raping her. The neighbors arrested the man and the writer said he saw him being led away.

The writer was immensely impressed at this social convention by which everybody came to help when the alarm sounded. He explained that in this culture (Hutu or Tutsi, I can't keep them straight) anyone who fails to come when this alarm is raised is obligated to explain this lapse, this moral failure, and he'd better have a good excuse for failing to render assistance. The writer thought this a wonderful example of a cultural virtue. It sounded good to me too. What could be bad about this, right?

Okay, here's the bad news.

When the time came for massacring the other tribe living in their midst, it was this same call that was given to assemble the tribal members. And they all came running. Armed I guess. Then the massacring began. If you didn't participate, you were expressing disloyalty. You could be seen as an outcast; the group might turn on you. You could find yourself demonized and killed or imprisoned.

This part began to sound familiar. This is how the pogroms of Russia, and the German Holocaust, and the witch-hunts of Salem, and elsewhere, and the internment of the AJAs on the West Coast, and the McCarthy Red Scares were carried out. You either showed solidarity with the dominant group by taking part in their activity or you were seen as part of the problem that required purging.

You were a sympathizer, or worse, a member, or a witch, or a Commie, Red, or Pinko. In those times you didn't want to be called that, for it was more than name-calling, it had the consequence of shunning or ousting, getting fired, and forced to explain yourself to a hostile audience.

The virtue in one circumstance becomes perverted into a tool of destruction, just as the knife was in the previous posting.

So what must we learn?

You tell me.



Staten Island WebŪ Forums Index.