Movie Reviews

Machete Season
by Jean Hatzfeld
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

Jean Hatzfeld’s interviews with the Rwandan killers remind us that evil does not always darken our door clad in a black hat and eyes of fire. More often its face is one we recognize all too easily.

In Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, French investigator Jean Hatzfeld interviews ten Hutus, childhood friends, who on April 11, 1994, picked up their machetes – the long blades they’d previously used for farming and clearing brush – and began to cut down their neighbors, the ethnic Tutsis. A hundred days of bloodshed followed, as Hutus drove Tutsis from they land they’d shared for generations. Meanwhile, the United Nations evacuated its own employees from the ravaged country but refused to stop the genocide. By the time the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front forced order on their nation, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had fallen under the blade. Millions more had fled their homes, flooding refugee camps in neighboring countries.

In studying the Rwandan massacre, the most difficult question to confront – other than ‘Why did the West allow it to continue?’ – is ‘How did this happen?’ How do people turn on friends they’ve known since childhood, seemingly without mercy or second thoughts?

It’s a question that philosopher Hannah Arendt took up in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Reporting on the famous trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, Arendt concluded, provocatively, that it was not a pathological hatred of Jews -- a conventional kind of evil – that allowed Eichmann to commit horror. He, like many “good Germans,” did not hate those he killed. Rather, he suffered a lack of empathic imagination: as the Final Solution ground its way through occupied Europe, the Jewish people became mere numbers to him, no longer human. Lacking fangs or a tail, Eichmann was a pathetic little man who wrought horror because he couldn’t imagine a different way.

When Hatzfeld puts the question to one of the killers, he finds the same failure of imagination. The response is, “We obeyed on all sides, and we found satisfaction in that.” They held no hatred for their victims, but for those 100 days, “Rule number one was to kill. There was no rule number two. It was an organization without complications.” In that simple rule the killers found comfort. They lost no sleep.

In some sense, it’s easy to understand Eichmann’s “I was just following orders” argument. He was a numbers man, the guy who made sure the trains ran on schedule. At the beginning, maybe, he knew those trains led to the camps, and that death met them there. Eventually, though, it all became marks on a page.

The killers in Rwanda didn’t have the detachment of the German industrial machine behind their efforts. When the radio said it was time to murder, no one could hide behind numbers. They took up what they had at hand: machetes, field tools, and fire. Guns were a rarity; most men killed with their hands. 

But they found it just as easy. Hatfeld devotes a chapter to “The First Time,” in which his interviewees – men whose consciences seem bewildered more than guilty, as if they’ve awoken from a dream to find themselves damned – recount their first kill. One says, “First I cracked an old mama’s skull with a club. But she was already lying there almost dead on the ground, so I did not feel death at the end of my arm. I went home that evening without even thinking about it.”

 It was not hard for them to avoid thinking about it, because the Hutus had spent years dehumanizing their Tutsi neighbors. “Before, we could fool around among ourselves and say we were going to kill them all, and the next moment we would join them to share some work or a bottle,” one killer said, “We could toss around awful words without awful thoughts. The Tutsis did not even get very upset.” One day, awful words melted into awful actions.

When Eichmann in Jerusalem was published, The New York Times Book Review condemned it as an insult to the Holocaust. If it were possible to forget the horrors of Hitler’s war machine, the Times said, “one could almost assume that in some parts of the book the author is being whimsical.” The Times reacted so vehemently because recognizing Eichmann as simply a cog in the bureaucracy of death robbed him of mythical power, and we want to keep our monsters even after realizing they wear a human face.  Yet every time we are tempted to forget, n Germany, in Armenia, in Rwanda, in Darfur (where Western authorities still refuse to intervene), and in a thousand other pits of darkness, we are reminded that, in W.H. Auden’s line, “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table.”

-Jesse Hicks

The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

The dream of a free and democratic Iraq –a dream to snare men’s minds – has an elegant and insidious simplicity. Remove Saddam Hussein, it whispers, and the people of Iraq will bask in the warm glow of liberty. This dream, nursed in Washington think-tanks and attended by Iraqi exile groups, is now, for better or worse, being tested in the real world.

George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq is the story of that dream. Through its champion, exiled Iraqi dissident and writer Kanan Makiya, it spreads through corridors of power, finding former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz especially vulnerable to its charms. He and fellow neoconservatives made it official policy, leading, with few substantial roadblocks, to the current misadventure in the Middle East.

Packer traces these developments with near-omniscience. He’s in the President’s back rooms, hearing Donald Rumsfeld crow about the future profits Iraqis would make from tourism – a typically rosy prediction. He listens to Kanan Makiya’s poetic, idealistic rhetoric in favor of military action. He diagrams the political infighting among the parties involved; once the US is in Iraq, he witnesses first-hand the myopia of the war’s progenitors and the frustration of the troops on the ground.

The sheer scope of Packer’s work is what makes it so valuable. Much of what is contained in The Assassins’ Gate has appeared piecemeal in other venues, but never in such a coherent context. That the war in Iraq will haunt history for generations to come seems inarguable; reading this book is a vital first step toward understanding how and why we’ve gotten to this point.

-- Chet Westerfield

Project X: A Novel
By Jim Shepard
Vintage, 2005.

Edwin Hanratty’s life sucks worse than yours. He’s taunted, spit on, and beaten by his jock classmates. Girls either ignore him or humiliate him. His only friend is a kid called Flake, whose pastimes include burning his flesh with spray paint and receiving blowjobs from creepy old men in vans.

Jim Shepard’s Project X shows us the preteen world through the eyes of Edwin – a confused, isolated, disturbed eighth-grade boy who links infamous serial killer Richard Speck with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King during a class discussion about innovators of the 20th century. He gets detention for it, on the first day of school. He’s confused and a little messed up; Edwin’s self-flagellating thoughts – “What happens when you know you’re worse than anybody else knows you are? What happens when everything you touch turns to shit?” – ring familiar to anyone who remembers what it’s like to be a shy, frightened kid.

But not every ridiculed adolescent sits back and takes it. Tired of life at the bottom of the pecking order, Flake and Edwin concoct a sadistic plan of retribution against their classmates. It is, sadly, not an unfamiliar story, but spending time in Edwin’s world reminds us that every school-shooting newsblip has a human face behind it. Edwin’s alienation is genuine, and he’s so sympathetic a character that it’s easy to rationalize the fact that he ends up in the school assembly brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle, Columbine-style.

Project X asks the reader to draw their own conclusions on the topic of moral brutality: who gets what they deserve?  The question that Shepard poses is very simple: when is brutality justifiable? How far does anyone, not just ridiculed schoolchildren, have to be pushed before it becomes morally acceptable for them to exact their revenge?

-- Katie Pegher

The Adversary
A True Story of Monstrous Deception
By Emmanuel Carrere. Translated by Linda Coverdale.
Picador, 2002.

The nature of senseless brutality begs intriguing questions. The most obvious of which is, just how fucked-up do you have to be to beat your wife to death with a blunt object, shoot your two young children, your parents and the family dog, and then half-heartedly try to burn down your house while you’re still inside? Jean-Claude Romand did exactly that; The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception reveals the psychological state of this homicidal family man with a probity and insight rarely found in the true-crime genre.

Romand was well-known and respected in his community, with a high-powered position at the World Health Organization. He was a member of the Parents’ Association at his children’s school and a devoted churchgoer. He was also a pathological liar with a serious inferiority complex, who had never finished medical school, and spent 18 years pretending to go to work at a job he never had. When his lies began to unravel, Romand snapped.

Unlike others of its genre, The Adversary doesn’t use the standard true-crime-novel vomit-inducing, pornographic depictions of violence for shock value. Instead, author Emmanuel Carrere solemnly recounts Romand’s tale, transcribing the testimony in which Romand admits to “buying the bullets that would pierce my children’s hearts.” Through his interactions with the murderer, as well as from the perspectives of Romand’s friends and neighbors, Carrere tries to make sense of the killings. Inside the killer’s head, though, we see what Romand’s whiny, self-centered justification – and realize just how sad it truly is. 

-- Katie Pegher

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