As With a Harvest

"Maybe you even killed her with your own hands in the church."

The only architecturally modern building in Nyamata is the town church. Or at least it was. It still stands today, one story tall, made from bricks, with a high-ceilinged sanctuary in the middle. Back in its full glory the church was the centerpiece of Nyamata, a small village on a hill in southern Rwanda, just north of the Burundi border. The church always stood out from the other features in Nyamata, like a grand cathedral presiding over an old city square—though such cathedrals aren’t typically riddled with bullet holes.

Back when the church’s walls stood unperforated, Innocent Rwililiza worked in the town hall nearby. Innocent was a teacher, which was one of the highest positions that a person could hold in Nyamata. He was charismatic and well-liked; wherever he went people came up to him to conduct a routine checkup on life’s goings on. On the morning the Rwandan genocide came to Nyamata, the people of the town congregated in the courtyard of the town hall, Innocent among them. They waited there for about two hours, hoping to hear of some reprieve from the impending violence. When the mayor, a Hutu, finally addressed the crowd, he told them, “If you go home, you will be killed. If you flee into the bush, you will be killed. If you remain here, you will be killed. You must leave here in any case, because I do not want any blood in front of my town hall.” Innocent, along with the other Tutsis, were on their own.

The women, the children, and the feeble shuffled toward the church. But Innocent took off. He ran into the surrounding bush of Rwanda’s dense and undulating hillscape. He spent the night among eucalyptus trees and the next day made it to Kayumba, a couple hills over from Nyamata. He wasn’t alone, since many of Nyamata’s able-bodied had also fled. There they waited it out, peering across the terrain at the hill they’d escaped from, where their loved ones remained.

When the Interahamwe arrived outside the church with their weapons, chiefly machetes, they sang songs. They thrust their machetes toward the sky and declared their intention to massacre. The women and children waited in the church, barely taking a breath. When the Interahamwe began to rush the building, they fired guns into its walls. They threw grenades. They entered the church and slashed at the cowering bodies with machetes and spears. As one survivor, a young boy named Cassius, later recalled: “They struck with swinging arms. They cut anyone, without choosing.”

From Kayumba, Innocent could see the smoke and hear the grenades. His wife and children were inside the church that day. Sometime later, amidst the chaos of the ongoing genocide, Innocent encountered a woman who had escaped from the church that day. “Innocent,” she told him, “I bring bad news: I saw your wife during the mêlée in the church. Given the state in which I left her, I must tell you that she is no longer of this world.” Yet Innocent remained hopeful. “I told myself, if no one has seen her body, perhaps she managed to escape, too.”1

In the wake of the Rwandan genocide, a French journalist named Jean Hatzfeld visited the country, first to interview the survivors, then, some years later, to interview the killers.2 Innocent acted as Hatzfeld’s liaison, translating from Kinyarwanda into French. (Hatzfeld’s book was later translated into English.) In his interviews with the killers, Hatzfeld focuses on one killer in particular, a prisoner named Joseph-Désiré Bitero.

Innocent3 and Joseph-Désiré4 knew each other before the genocide. They were friends. “I’ve known him since our school days,” Innocent remarked, “and we later became colleagues and friends, since we were both teachers. When he was made president of the Interahamwe, much feared and much renowned, we were in opposing camps, but that didn’t prevent us from sharing a Primus and some laughs.” Hatzfeld describes Joseph-Désiré’s manner of walking, sauntering through the prison corridor to the manioc tree under which the interviews were conducted: He “claps former drinking or killing companions on the back, fires off a joke, winks and rolls his eyes, and asks how everyone is doing, testing his popularity while trying to renew old ties. He seemed jolly, said hello nicely, and would gladly have offered us a beer if he’d had one handy.” While Joseph-Désiré had pleaded guilty to his charges, Hatzfeld says “his confessions hadn’t been accepted because he denied the essential fact of his crimes, disclaimed responsibility for his actions, and said he was simply following orders. He showed no remorse about his victims, either, and during our interviews he never once seemed to understand the monstrosity of his actions.”

Joseph-Désiré’s argument is a familiar one.5 He was just following orders. If he hadn’t acted, someone else would have. Sure, he was an educated man and should have known better. But he was simply being loyal, it wasn’t his job to question the party line. “That’s not what you’re there for when the situation gets hot,” as Joseph-Désiré claims. “All I had to think about was implementation.” He says he didn’t know anything about the genocide beforehand, neither its intention nor its scale.

But Hatzfeld doesn’t buy it. Reflecting on the interviews, he makes a comment about Joseph-Désiré: “Of all the men in the gang [that Hatzfeld interviewed], Joseph-Désiré is the only one who concretely envisaged the genocide beforehand.” Hatzfeld’s evidence for this claim is that Joseph-Désiré, a few months before the genocide, had gone around to each Hutu home to make sure their machetes were sharp. In the days before the genocide, he was in meetings with the higher-ups, who surely would have known what was going to happen. More than that, he was an organizer. Not merely a participant in the genocide, he was one of its architects. Or such was Hatzfeld’s impression.

Hatzfeld writes that “on the first day of the killings, [Joseph-Désiré] was conspicuous in the main street, waving his machete, and then he led the way into the church.” That was the church in Nyamata—the one where the Interahamwe showed up singing, where they threw grenades, where they started slicing people up with machetes and spears. Joseph-Désiré was outside that church waving his machete and singing the loudest of anyone. He was not only there when Innocent’s wife died, he was the one who led the charge of men who killed her. “After his arrest,” recounts Innocent, “we ran into each other in court and I burst out at him: ‘You, you knew everything for a long time and you never gave the slightest warning to save at least my wife! Maybe you even killed her with your own hands in the church.’ He mouthed conciliatory words in response, but he dodged the answer.”

Hatzfeld looks at all this and thinks we should string Joseph-Désiré up and be done with the matter. And perhaps we should. His crimes aren’t in doubt. Joseph-Désiré led the group of killers into the church, where Innocent’s wife cowered in fear. Maybe he even killed her with his own hands. Now, Joseph-Désiré is looking Innocent in the face and denying all responsibility for what happened. Hatzfeld looks at what Joseph-Désiré did and draws a conclusion about why he did it. In short, he’s evil. I mean, you’d have to be to raise your machete and bring the blade down on your friend’s wife.


There is a standard pattern for how the back-and-forth between victim and perpetrator plays out in such situations, whenever war crimes are involved. It doesn’t matter whether what’s under discussion are actions in the genocide in Rwanda, or the Holocaust, or any terrible and systematic aggression of one tribe toward another. Steven Pinker calls it the “Moralization Gap.” He describes such behavior as a specific instance of the more general Fundamental Attribution Error. The idea of the FAE is that when we do something wrong, we tend to blame our surroundings: we had no other choice. But when other people do something wrong we tend to put it on account of their being a bad person. When you cut someone off in traffic, it’s because that was your exit and, sorry, but you just had to get two lanes over in a hurry. It’s about the situation, not your disposition. But when you’re the one who is cut off, it doesn’t matter what the other driver’s needs or goals are. You inevitably find yourself pulling up next to them, just to peek over and confirm what you already know: they’re an asshole.

The Moralization Gap is the same analysis applied to war crimes. In Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker describes the Moralization Gap between victim and perpetrator as two opposing sides in a courtroom. The victim will lay out the facts of the case and point to the callousness, the selfishness, the disregard for general human welfare entailed in one person cutting another off in traffic—or slaying them with a machete. The perp will respond by saying there was no other choice: the situation demanded it, and anyone in her position would have made the same decision. The situation with changing lanes was regrettable but unavoidable; the genocidal commands came from the top down and no circumvention was possible. “People,” writes Pinker, “consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous.”

This is the story of Innocent versus Joseph-Désiré. Innocent blames Joseph-Désiré. He points to Joseph-Désiré’s actions and draws conclusions about who he is as a person. Joseph-Désiré blames the situation. He points to his surroundings and identifies all the things that had nothing to do with him. Of course, there’s a conflict of interest for both of them: the analysis of a genocide is rarely based in emotional composure. Obviously, Joseph-Désiré wants to blame the situation, because he doesn’t want to shoulder the responsibility himself. Innocent wants to blame Joseph-Désiré. Though it won’t bring his wife back, he needs someone to blame. Without blame, we believe, there can be no closure.

So what happens if you subtract your personal stake from the situation, trying your best to leave emotion and motivation out of it? Whose explanation is correct? This isn’t a question about how we should punish Joseph-Désiré. That’s a game with a different set of rules, a different set of stakes. My question is about how to relate to Joseph-Désiré. What goes through a person’s mind when they bring down the machete? If another person were in his place, would they have done the same thing? More pertinently, if you were in his place, what would you do? Another of the killers interviewed by Hatzfeld, named Pio, said: “At the start of a genocide, there is a cause, a reason, and people who find it worthwhile. The cause does not drift around there by accident; it’s even fine-tuned by the intimidators: the desire to win the game for God. But the people it tempts are the ones who just happen to live there. And I was there, at home, when the temptation came calling. I’m not saying I was forced by Satan and the like. Through greed and obedience, I found the cause worthwhile, and I ran down to the marshes. But if I had been born in Tanzania or in France, I would have been far away from the commotion and dirty bloodshed.”

There is one story told in terms of situational factors, to which Pio and Joseph-Désiré lay claim. And another is told in terms of disposition, to which Pinker alludes, and Hatzfeld and Innocent accept completely. Pinker is certainly right that if you follow the trail of the perpetrator’s motivation, then you come to the conclusion that it’s in his best interest to claim himself not guilty by virtue of situational factors. Perhaps that’s enough to explain why Joseph-Désiré makes that claim. He admits to being a part of the genocide. But he contends that the situation forced his hand. What he did isn’t permissible, but it’s not unjustified, either. And, of course, Innocent points to the contrary. You can’t blame the situation. You have to blame Joseph-Désiré.

So whose story should we believe?

Joseph-Désiré grew up around Nyamata. His family lived on the hill of Kinazi, about fifteen minutes up the road from Nyamata toward Kigali, the capital. Like most Hutus, his parents were farmers. They were middle-class, neither poor nor rich. He had three brothers and four sisters. He liked to play soccer and watch games with his friends. Joseph-Désiré says of his family home, “I lived in the house where I was born and where I expected to die.”6

Joseph-Désiré’s parents encouraged his education. He wanted to be a teacher. “When I was a child, I saw teachers as special people, honored at ceremonies, much listened to, well-dressed—so admirable.” When Joseph-Désiré finished primary school, his grades were good enough to be accepted at the teacher’s college. He did well there. He began to attract attention because he was smart, well-educated, and, above all, very charming. Innocent—who was Joseph-Désiré’s colleague—remarks on his disposition during this period: “At heart, [Joseph-Désiré] was really a jolly guy, who smiled at everything and nothing. He enjoyed meeting people. He was nice. He’d share a drink and conversation with any comrade at all.”

Then Joseph-Désiré got interested in politics. “When I wanted to join a party, there was only one: the MRND”—the National Revolutionary Movement for Development (in French, Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement). The MRND was founded in 1975 by Juvénal Habyarimana, who led a coup overthrowing the previous regime. “It was the party of President Habyarimana, [Nyamata’s mayor], civil servants, and Hutus like me. After other parties appeared, it never occurred to me to change. I preached the ideas of the president, which seemed most profitable for my Hutu brothers, the ideas that addressed the threat of rebels and of oppositionist political figures. I figured those ideas would prevail because of our majority, the army, and government negotiations. That suited me fine.”

In the course of presenting Joseph-Désiré’s side of the story, Hatzfeld makes an aside, summarizing his development: “Let’s simply note that there is no evidence of any event in his childhood, any cause of humiliation or resentment, which might have fed a personal desire for revenge, and that for a young teacher, climbing the social ladder but living on a meager salary, this party in power for twenty-five years, the party of his cousin the [mayor], was the only pathway to success—unless he tried his luck in the capital or in the army, which was risky for a farmer’s son who had never set foot outside Nyamata.”

So what inspired Joseph-Désiré’s hatred for the Tutsis? Explaining this requires a bit of background on Rwanda’s social history. As Joseph-Désiré put it, “I was raised in the fear that the Mwami—the Tutsi kings—and their commanders might return; that was because of all the stories old folks told us at home about unpaid forced labor and other humiliations of that sad period of us, and because of the awful things happening to our brothers in Burundi.”

The Hutus and Tutsis are often considered subgroups of the same ethnicity. They speak the same language—Kinyarwanda (some of them speak French, the Rwandan colonial language, as well). They share a common cultural background. They even share the same religion: over 90 percent of the country is Christian. There is nothing that distinguishes them physically. If you had fifty Hutus and fifty Tutsis mix in together, standing shoulder to shoulder, you wouldn’t be able to separate them into two distinct groups, unless you knew each person individually.7

The biggest difference between them is a class divide. Historically, the Tutsis have been an aristocracy. Before World War I and the colonization of Rwanda and Burundi by Belgium and Germany, the Tutsis were the ruling class. The colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority. The Tutsis held all of the power and wealth, and the Hu- tus resented this. The Hutu majority first revolted against the Tutsi aristocracy in 1959 and took power, which they retained through the time of the genocide. When Joseph-Désiré says that he fears the return of the Tutsi kings, he is talking about this period before the first Hutu revolt.

“You will never see the source of a genocide,” says Joseph-Désiré. “It is buried too deep in grudges, under an accumulation of misunderstandings that we were the last the inherit. We came of age at the worst moment in Rwanda’s history: we were taught to obey absolutely, raised in hatred, stuffed with slogans. We are an unfortunate generation.” Joseph-Désiré grew up during those three decades between the first revolt in 1959 and the genocide in 1994. The worst moment in Rwanda’s history.

As Hatzfeld himself admits, there is no event that caused Joseph-Désiré to hate the Tutsis. Rather, it was an inherited prejudice—a pre-judgment passed on to him from antecedent generations. He was raised in fear of the return of the Tutsi kings. He heard stories of what it was like when Hutus lived in servitude. He was told to blame the Tutsis for the misfortunes of his people. Hate, prejudice—these words are broad. What festered in Joseph-Désiré’s mind was more subtle, an elusive combination of suspicion and blame. “I was born surrounded by Tutsis in Kanazi. I always had Tutsi acquaintances and thought nothing of it. Still, I did grow up listening to history lessons and radio programs that were always talking about major problems between Hutus and Tutsis—though I lived among Tutsis who posed no problem. The situation was going to pieces due to the impossible gap between the worrisome news and the mess on the country’s borders and the peaceful people who lived next door. The situation was bound to come apart and to go into either savagery or neighborliness.”

Joseph-Désiré rose in the political ranks and became president of Nyamata’s chapter of the Interahamwe. The Interahamwe are considered a terrorist organization now, after taking responsibility for the genocide. But they didn’t start that way. When Joseph-Désiré joined, the Interahamwe was just the youth wing of the MRND. And he was the president for his village. That was a big honor for him, especially as a farmer’s son who had never set foot outside Nyamata. “It was an absorbing activity that could bring small advantages. We had a good time at the formal political events. We wanted the superiority of power and all its satisfactions.” In other words, Joseph-Désiré’s career, like anyone else’s, grew out of his ambition. As is the aspiration of many young people, he found himself rising in influence in an influential organization.

Of his initial role with the Interahamwe, Joseph-Désiré says: “My job was to enroll young Hutus, to keep them from going astray into crime or into the wrong parties. I urged them to listen to the president’s speeches; I organized gymnastic exercises, games, and meetings to explain our policies. But the war took a wrong turn. The Rwandan army could not hold the front, and we suspected a cover-up of their defeat. That fanned the politician’s brutality and thirst for vengeance. We militants were intoxicated by orders, and we acquiesced.” He goes on, “It’s too complicated, because the meaning of the word Interahamwe shifted in the time between my nomination and the massacres. When I accepted, I had not thought of killing, except perhaps if a pressing need arose. I mean, I had no thought of killing for killing’s sake.”

Joseph-Désiré is saying that the situation around his killing was complicated. But was it really? Hatzfeld doesn’t think so. Joseph-Désiré was an educated man. He killed people. He should’ve known better. There’s nothing complicated about that. After all, Joseph-Désiré knew that the genocide was coming. Two months before the massacres started, he went around to all of the Hutus in Nyamata to make sure their machetes were sharp. He met with the higher-ups in the days preceding the genocide. He was front and center waving his machete outside the church.

Innocent also claims Joseph-Désiré knew what was going to happen. “His character changed completely after January [the genocide would start in April]. If I came into our neighborhood cabaret, he’d stop talking until I left. If our paths crossed, he would change direction and look away; suddenly he began avoiding conversation with me, refusing all contact. We hadn’t quarreled about anything, or fallen out over a hurtful word, but he had already expelled me from his circle. He preferred putting in hours at closed meetings with influential people. He was still friendly, but only to his Hutu compatriots.”

But Joseph-Désiré claims the opposite. He didn’t actually know what was going to happen. One day he just found himself at the bottom of a slippery slope. He started out with innocuous work, like preaching MRND doctrine and leading physical exercises. When the group asked him to make minor compromises, it was either accept wholeheartedly or forfeit all of the progress he had made in his career. “When the decision about the killings reached us, duty kept me from backing out. It was beyond difficult: things were rushing along too fast for us to think as we do today, six years later.” He continues, “Let us say that the chaotic situation had come to seem too natural to me. The things that went without saying, the obligations—it all happened so fast, there was no room left for any kind of hesitation. You were either pushed into flight by cowardice or drawn to your machete by obedience.”

Hatzfeld and Innocent don’t buy this. How on earth could you not know that something that momentous was about to occur? Especially when you’re in on the ground floor of it. All of the signs were there! How could you not have known what was about to happen?8

But this is always easier to say in retrospect. There’s a passage from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book on the unpredictability of consequential events, The Black Swan, that captures this sort of difficulty. “Events,” writes Taleb, “present themselves to us in a distorted way. Consider the nature of information: of the millions, maybe even trillions, of small facts that prevail before an event occurs, only a few will turn out to be relevant later to your understanding of what happened.” Taleb says the book that gave him first glimpse into this was William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934–1941. Taleb first read it when he a boy, during Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s. “Shirer,” he says, “was a radio correspondent, famous for his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. "It occurred to me that the Journal offered an unusual perspective.” He continues, “the diary purported to describe the events as they were taking place, not after. I was in a basement with history audibly unfolding above me (the sound of mortar shells kept me up all night). I was a teenager attending the funerals of classmates. I was experiencing a nontheoretical unfolding of History and I was reading about someone apparently experiencing history as it went along. I made efforts to mentally produce a movielike representation of the future and realized it was not so obvious. I realized that if I were to start writing about the events later they would seem more . . . historical. There was a difference between the before and the after.”

As Taleb says, “encountering Shirer’s book provided me with an intuition about the workings of history. One would suppose that people living through the beginning of WWII had an inkling that something momentous was taking place. Not at all.”

It’s possible that the same thing is true of the Rwandan genocide.

The catalyst of the genocide was the assassination of the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana. His plane was coming into land at the Kigali airport. On the plane were Habyarimana and the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, seven Rwandan and Burundian staff members, and a French crew of three. At 8:19 p.m. on April 6, a surface-to-air missile hit the left wing of their aircraft. Moments later a second one hit its tail. The plane went up in flames and crashed into the garden of the presidential palace, killing all the passengers. The genocide began the next morning.

Before the assassination, tensions percolated, but nothing like the genocide had begun in earnest. Élie, another of the killers interviewed by Hatzfeld, explains, “I think the idea of genocide germinated in 1959 [the year of the first Hutu revolt], when we killed lots of Tutsis without being punished, and we never repressed it after that. The intimidators and the peasants with hoes found themselves in agreement. As for us, we told ourselves that the Tutsis were in the way but this idea was not always in our thoughts. We talked about it, we forgot about it, we waited. We heard no protests about our murders. As with farm work, we waited for the right season. The death of our president was the signal for the final chaos. But as with a harvest, the seed was planted before.”

What Joseph-Désiré is saying is that there is the period between 1959, the year of the first Hutu revolt, and April 6, 1994, when the president’s plane was shot down. That’s when the conflict was building, but without any obvious steps toward genocide. Then there is the period from April 6, 1994, at 8:19 pm, when the missiles struck the president’s plane, to April 7, 1994, at 9:00 am, when the first killings of the genocide began. When Joseph-Désiré claims that it all happened so quickly, that’s because it did. The three decade period of tension tipped into a full-scale genocide during a twelve hour window.9

In July 1961, a prominent psychologist and his team put out an ad in a local New England paper. The psychologists were looking for men who were willing to participate in an experiment they were running on learning and memory. The experiment would take less than a couple hours and pay $4.50. Of the men who wrote back to the ad, the psychologists selected forty. The men were from different backgrounds. They ranged from twenty to fifty years old. Some of them were teachers, some were engineers, some were salesmen. Each arranged an appointment for their time in the laboratory. The psychologists made sure each appointment had two men scheduled at the same time, as the experiment required a pair to participate.

When the participants arrived for the experiment, they were briefed on the importance of the study. The psychologist explained to the participants that it’s well known that reward affects learning. “But actually,” he explained, “we know very little about the effect of punishment on learning, because almost no truly scientific studies have been made of it in human beings.” This experiment would be a first step toward understanding that relationship.

One of them was to be the teacher, the other, the student—randomly assigned. The experimenter took the student into an adjacent room, where his arms were fastened to a chair, to prevent “excess movement.” On the right arm was placed an electrode. The electrode was attached to a machine in the other room, where the teacher would be sitting. The student’s job was to memorize random pairs of words: for example, apple and waltz. If the student was able to recall the words correctly, then he could move on to the next pair. If he was unable to recall the words, he would receive a shock, administered by the teacher. The voltage got dialed up with each shock, ranging from Slight Shock at fifteen volts to XXX at 450 volts. The shocks were intended to hurt, but not to cause permanent damage.

The experiment began innocuously enough. The teacher administered the shocks for each wrong answer. Then, somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred volts, the teacher heard a muffled scream coming from the adjacent room, where the student was strapped in. He paused for a moment, then looked back at the experimenter and remarked, “I think that last shock really hurt him. Should we stop?” The experimenter looked up from his papers. “Please continue,” he replied. The teacher acquiesced. When the teacher administered 330 volts, he heard the student shout: “This hurts! Let me out of here!” He turned again to the experimenter. “It sounds like he said he doesn’t want to go on.” The experimenter replied: “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly. The experiment requires that you continue.”

The teacher protested again.

“It is absolutely essential that you continue,” the experimenter assured him.
He continued. But when the teacher applied the 345-volt shock, he heard nothing. The student didn’t respond. The experimenter looked up again from his papers.

“Allow five to ten seconds before considering no response as a wrong answer.”

The teacher turned around, looked at the experimenter, then faced the shock generator again, visibly distressed. He let out a nervous laugh. He turned back to the experimenter.

“Are you sure about this?”

“You have no other choice,” the experimenter responded. “You must go on.”

In most cases, the teachers did continue. They went right up to the XXX section, 435 volts. In this case, the teacher shook his heads, let out another nervous laugh, and flipped the switch for 435. When the switch was flipped for 450 volts, the experiment was over. At that point, the experimenter would go into the other room to check on the student.

Then another man came into the room. His name was Stanley Milgram.10 He asked the teacher a few questions. The questions were open-ended, but forceful. “Why did you continue to shock the learner after you heard him yell?” The teacher did his best to answer. He murmured something about the instructions of the experiment. Milgram asked a few more questions. Once he’d finished with the questions, he debriefed the teacher. The experiment had not actually been concerned with learning and memory. That was a subterfuge. It was instead an experiment on obedience to authority. The teacher had performed as what Milgram called, an “obedient subject.”

That’s when the student and the experimenter came out from the other room. Both of them were confederates in the experiment, acting according to a script. The shocks were not actually being applied to the student. Milgram, who was actually the psychologist in charge of the experiment, made sure that the teacher understood what had happened and that he had not actually caused the student any harm. “If it’s any consolation,” Milgram told him, “most people go all the way to 450, too.”

Of the forty men that participated in Milgram’s experiment, twenty-six of them applied the 450-volt shock. Not a single one of them refused to continue beyond the 300-volt shock.

Once the genocide started, why didn’t Joseph-Désiré abandon ship? Why did he stay on with the party and commit genocide against the Tutsis? It was his decision to raise his machete against his neighbors. Nobody raised his arm for him. Isn’t that an inexcusable decision no matter what his alternative choices were?

Joseph-Désiré gives an account of his thought process. “For someone who had been recruited by politics the only choice was to run away or become an organizer. Run away? As I told you before, I never considered that. Or the possibility that the authorities had the wrong perspective. I told myself that if the job had to be done, it had to be done quickly and completely. When war threatens your land, when you can rely on the strength of the majority, of the party that’s best for your intellectual and material well-being, and when you enjoy the confidence of the authorities, you do your utmost without counting the cost.”

He continues, “The highest authorities corrupted a war based on grudges piled up since the Tutsi kings and turned it into a genocide. We were overwhelmed. We found ourselves faced with a done deal we had to get done, if I may put it that way. When the genocide came from Kigali, taking us by surprise, I never flinched. I thought, If the authorities opted for this choice, there’s no reason to sidestep the issue.”

Listen to what another killer, Pio, has to say: “Anyone who had the idea of not killing for a day could get out of it, no problem. But anyone with the idea of not killing at all could not let on, or he himself would be killed while others watched. Voicing disagreement out loud was fatal on the spot. So we don’t know if people had that idea.” It was kill or be killed.

Hatzfeld himself relates the story of someone who dissented, Isidore Mahandago: “It was close to noon on April 11, the first day of the Tutsi hunt on the hill of Ntarama. Isidore Mahandago was sitting on a chair in front of his terres-tôle house, resting after a morning of weeding. He was a Hutu farmer, sixty-five years old, who had arrived twenty years before in Rugunga, on the Ntarama hill. Some strapping fellows armed with machetes came singing up the path that ran near his house. Isidore called to them in his deep old voice and lectured them in public, in front of the neighbors: ‘You, young men, are evil-doers. Turn on your heels and go. Your blades point the way toward a dreadful misfortune for us all. Do not stir up disputes too dangerous for us farmers. Stop tormenting our neighbors and go back to your fields.’ Two killers approached him, laughing, and without a word cut him down with their machetes. Among the band was Idisore’s son, who according to witnesses neither protested nor stopped to bend over the body. The young men went on their way singing.” Isidore Mahandago did the right thing. And he was cut down immediately, without discussion.

That was Joseph-Désiré’s alternative course of action.

You can maintain that he still should’ve chosen resistance than than committing genocide. And maybe that’s right. But think about it from his point of view. He had built his career up. He trusted the MRND. It all happened so quickly for him. He had his family to think about. Was he just supposed to give up on all that?

Before Milgram ran his experiment on obedience to authority, he told one of his psychology classes—a group of fourteen Yale seniors—what he planned to do. He asked them to predict the results. Out of one hundred hypothetical participants, how many would go all the way to 450 volts? Pretty much everyone agreed. No one would do it. The students’ estimates ranged from zero to three, with an average estimate that 1.2 subjects would make it to the full voltage. And it’s easy to imagine how they got that number—at least one person in a hundred might be sadistic enough to enjoy giving the shocks, right? Milgram also got together a group of forty psychiatrists. He asked them the same thing. What do you think will happen? Same as the students, they thought there would maybe be one person who went all the way, but more likely it would be no one.

The students and the psychiatrists projected what they thought would happen, based on dispositional factors. But that, of course, had almost no impact on what followed. It was all about the situational factors. Milgram went on to run many different versions of the experiment. In each one he would add or subtract a single variable—always a situational factor—to see how it affected the results. He found with these small changes, he could modulate the percentage of participants who complied, anywhere from 90% to less than 10%.

At one point Joseph-Désiré states,“Everything I said I would say again today. I was tried at a time when the survivors felt too much anger.” The survivors felt too much anger. At first glance, that’s an appalling statement. Too much anger? You mean, people were too angry about the time when you and your buddies slaughtered an entire population of Tutsis? That they should just get over it?

But I don’t think he means it like that. He goes on, “They expected some kind of punishment, and the new authorities wanted to give them a spectacular revenge.” What he’s saying is that they needed someone to blame. Yes, he killed people. He freely admits that. But that’s not what he’s protesting. He’s protesting being blamed for the genocide. And he feels like they’re trying to pin the blame on him. But he doesn’t feel like he caused the genocide. He genuinely believes that he’s the victim of a tragic situation. From his perspective they have it backwards. He’s a victim of the worst moment in Rwanda’s history. Not the cause of it.

Joseph-Désiré feels like a normal guy, someone who happened to grow up in the worst moment of his country’s history and had his hand forced upon him. He doesn’t feel like a killer. He definitely doesn’t feel like he caused the genocide. Marie-Chantal, Joseph-Dé- siré’s wife, gives her perspective of the period during the genocide: “He came home often. He never carried a weapon, not even his machete. I knew he was a leader, I knew the Hutus were out there cutting Tutsis. With me, he behaved nicely. He made sure we had everything we needed. One day he even had his stepfather’s second wife escorted to Kabgayi because she had Tutsi blood.” She continues, “Actually, he was steeped in bad politics but not in bad thoughts. He was gentle with the children. I did not want to ask him about the trouble that was spreading everywhere. To me, he was the nice man I married… Today, when he sends a note from prison, he does not dwell on the change. He appears cheerful, makes no demands, sends advice and encouragement, hides his suffering.”

Hatzfeld derides this as a “heartwarming picture of a war criminal.” He still doesn’t believe it. But why not? Think about the position Hatzfeld is in. He’s sitting next to his friend, Innocent, whose wife and child were killed at Joseph-Désiré’s hands. There’s nothing complicated about the situation from Innocent’s perspective. He’s upset. As he should be. Genocide is an atrocity, and no one who gets that close to it would walk away unmoved. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right explanation for Joseph-Désiré’s behavior. That doesn’t mean that the situation isn’t more complicated.

Here is another passage from Pio, reflecting on his actions during the genocide: “It is as if I had let another individual take on my own living appearance, and the habits of my heart, without a single pang in my soul. This killer was indeed me, as to the offense he committed and the blood he shed, but he is a stranger to me in his ferocity. I admit and recognize my obedience at that time, my victims, my fault, but I fail to recognize the wickedness of the one who raced through the marshes on my legs, carrying my machete. That wickedness seems to belong to another self with a heavy heart. The most serious changes in my body were my invisible parts, such as the soul or the feelings that go with it. Therefore I alone do not recognize myself in that man. But perhaps someone outside this situation, like you, cannot have an inkling of that strangeness of mind.”

Can you imagine how confusing that would be? It’s the weight of your actions pulling against the feeling that you’re still the same person you were before. Therefore I alone do not recognize myself in that man.

“One thing that surprises me now,” says Innocent, “is that many who promoted the genocide have turned back into everyday people quietly spreading themselves around, sauntering down streets, in Kenya, in Europe, in France. They teach in universities, they preach in churches or doctor patients in hospitals, and in the evening, they listen to music, they supervise children’s homework. People say, ‘The genocide, it’s sheer human madness,’ but the police don’t even go question the star performers of the genocide in their villas in Brussels or Nairobi. If you notice one of them in Paris, in a fashionable suit and wearing gold-rimmed glasses, you think, Well, now there’s a sophisticated African gentleman. You do not say to yourself, There is a sadist who stockpiled two thousand machetes, then handed them out to the peasants of his native hill. And so, because of this neglected duty, the killings can begin again, here or elsewhere.”11

At the end of the interview, Joseph-Désiré concludes with a last thought: “If a divine miracle were to help me return to my hill, my family, and a job, people would see that I can become an ordinary person again.”

Thanks for reading. I’m Cody Kommers, and this is my Substack in which I write about psychology, travel, and the science of meaningful experience. I’m a PhD student in social psych at Oxford. If you liked this piece, please consider subscribing. I put out long-form content like this every week or two—depending on how long it takes to do the piece to the best of my ability. Sharing and subscribing is a huge help in supporting this content. I really appreciate it.



I published this essay previously, in a literary magazine, called The Massachusetts Review. It’s funny. I wrote the piece because I had found this story, and it resonated with a topic I was thinking about at the time. Then I was like: well fuck, I have this 10k word essay. What should I do with it? In September 2019, I sent it to a bunch of venues that accept unsolicited essays from unknown authors. I heard nothing. Then six months later, I got an email from Mass Review. They wanted to know if the essay was still available. I was just happy that someone wanted to publish my work, that they weren’t, like, immediately offended by its lack of quality. It felt cool to be featured in a literary mag. But then they took the piece, gave me my pittance, and that was that. The magazine came out. I received a couple copies. And then… nothing. Not that I need the world to stop everything and so people can read my silly piece. But after the initial excitement was through, it didn’t feel an experience I wanted to replicate. What am I supposed to do? Spend all this time writing elaborate essays, earning practically no money just so some literary magazine can further its own subscriber base? That’s the reason I’m doing this Substack. I do want to write in-depth, thoughtful, long-form content like this. But I want to do it in a way that actually builds toward something. Not that I have anything against organs like Mass Review—I am thankful for the opportunity they gave me!—but I think, over the long-run, this format is a much more sustainable means of developing a writing career.


I’ve always been interested by historical circumstances which feature conflict between two groups who, from the outsider’s view, are almost completely identical. Freud called the it the narcissism of small differences. Northern Ireland is another example that comes to mind. This instances—these tragedies, I should say—are interesting from a psychological perspective because they demonstrate just how little we humans need to create a basis for strife. That’s why, circa 2017, while I was still doing research at Harvard, I started poking around for books on the Rwandan genocide. When I found Hatzfeld’s three books (one interviewing the survivors, another the killers, and a third their reconciliation), I knew it would be the perfect raw material for this investigation—to hear from the participants directly. The books themselves aren’t about Joseph-Désiré, he is only one character of many, but he is the one who stood out to me. I wrote the piece on him because I liked the question of “What would it take to raise your machete against a friend? What goes through your mind?” I felt JD (as I called him in my mind, when writing) gave as good an insight into that as I’d ever get.


Innocent. What a great fucking name for a protagonist. Especially one with whom the author wants you, initially at least, to sympathize.


Joseph-Désiré. What a great fucking name for a villain. Especially one whom the author wants you, initially at least, to demonize.


This is my Malcolm Gladwell voice. In all honesty, this essay was my attempt to rip off his style. I don’t really write like this anymore, but at the time it was a really useful exercise to try to approximate the voice of someone whose work I both really admire and feel like I really understand. I’ve been a student of Gladwell’s for many years. I could go on for hours with my crack-pot theories about his approach to writing. I’ll spare you for now. But at any rate, that was what I was going for in this piece.


I love this description of one’s home: the place where you were born and expect to die.


I wanted to share this story this week, because it is also, in its own way, a story of intergroup contact. That’s not the topic I’m considering directly. But it’s part of the subtext. Innocent and JD were friends. And yet all this still happened.


Getting a bit too windy, too repetitive. If I were to write the piece to do, I’d probably try to streamline this better. That said, it is supposed to wind a little bit: a back-and-forth he-said-she-said consideration of both sides of the story.


This to me feels like the evidential climax of the piece. I think unless you’re familiar with the details of how the genocide in Rwanda began, and its precedent in the history of the country, then it’s difficult to understand how someone like JD would be unable to anticipate it. In my personal reading of the evidence, this gives him plausible deniability.


Yeah. I know. The Milgram study is passé. Everyone’s heard of it. As with the Stanford Prison Experiment, people have questioned its status as a legitimate scientific experiment. Oh well. I wrote this in 2017, when I think maaaaybe there was a chance people outside of psych hadn’t heard of it. It just illustrates the point I’m trying to make in this essay so damn well. Also — I tried to put a new spin on it by presenting it from the naive subject’s point of view. I based it off the Netflix movie, The Experimenter, a cinematic portrait of Milgram’s life and work. Not a bad movie overall. But the shock-experiment scenes are kind of hard to take seriously. The “learner” is played by Jim Gaffigan.


I love this image of seemingly normal people on the street in Paris—the kind of guy who, let’s be real, does make me say to myself “now look at that sophisticated African gentleman!”— having participated in a genocide. I also love the implication, the possibility, that, as JD dreams for himself, they really are just another normal guy going about their business, just like the rest of us.