Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Test of Morality

I am almost done reading "Shake Hands With The Devil," the memoir of Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. He was a man sent on an impossible mission, to enforce a set of peace accords without the support of the member nations of the UN (with the exception of a few nations such as his homeland of Canada), without the necessary troops or materiel, and without the good faith of the parties who signed the accords.

He knew of the coming genocide before it happened through informants, but his warnings were ignored by the UN. He was then forced to sit by and watch the genocide happen as he sent report after report to the UN requesting troops and a mandate to stop the killing.

About two-thirds of the way through the genocide, he faced three leaders of the Interahamwe, the "militia" group (read: thugs) who largely carried out the killings. He was forced to meet with them as if they legitimate authorities in an attempt to save those who could still be saved.

Dallaire relates, "This time as I was removing my pistol, which was the etiquette for such meetings, I hesitated, certainly long enough to be noticed, then let my gun drop on the sofa. I don't know what the three Interahamwe leaders made of the gesture, but I was fighting a terrible compulsion to shoot them on the spot. This was no fleeting urge. I had to consciously take my weapon off and put it away from myself. Why not shoot them? Wouldn't such an act be justified?"

Of course, he didn't shoot them. In terms of the kind of Hollywood morality we see in movies, this is the moment when the hero decides to be a hero and not take the law into his own hands. My first thoughts upon reading the above passage were, "Of course he can't just shoot them." But then, I started thinking. In a time and a place when the forces of good, the will of the international community, law and order, and morality have all failed, if you have the chance to kill those responsible for, and still carrying out, a genocide, would it not, in fact, be justified, and almost mandated?

I am not faulting Dallaire for his choice. I doubt I would have done differently. He was a soldier, a representative of his country and of the UN, and was not at liberty to take matters into his own hands. He would certainly have been harshly punished, and such an action would have endangered UN peacekeeping efforts (such as they are) elsewhere. As a practical matter, Dallaire couldn't shoot the Interahamwe leaders.

But morally? I have trouble seeing how morally he wouldn't have been completely justified in shooting them. He knew, without a doubt, that they were genocidaires (in a previous meeting, one of them actually still had blood on his shirt from those he'd personally killed earlier in the day). That there was no law and order to deal with them, no due process to hold them to account. And they were still in the process of carrying out the genocide. Shooting them wouldn't be just an act of punishment, retribution, or revenge, but an act of prevention, of salvation of those these men would kill in the next days and weeks. How can that not be moral and right?

I guess it goes back to the classic question of whether it would be moral, were one to find one's self back in time in, say, 1889, to hunt down an Austrian infant by the name of Hitler and strangle him in his cradle. What is justifiable in order to stop an atrocity or crimes beyond imagining? How can ordinary morality, of the "do not kill" sort, apply in such a case?

If killing genocidaires isn't moral, does morality mean anything? Is morality a practical concept that actually means something in the real world, or is it simply a pie-in-the-sky idea only to be discussed by philosophers and theologians in their ivory towers?

Consider and discuss.


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