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Rwandan tragedy, Lewinsky farce

A surreal juxtaposition, like a rattlesnake in the mailbox, may clarify the mind

By Lance Morrow

TIME magazine

I have spent the past few days flipping back and forth mentally between the Clinton-Lewinsky business and a new book by the New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch titled We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

The disproportion between the two subjects is grotesque, almost a joke. To crowd Lewinsky and Rwanda into the same viewfinder is not just to discuss apples and oranges but to compare, forgive me, apples and severed heads. Each of the dramas discloses a nation in moral crisis, but as Bill Clinton might point out, it depends what you mean by "moral." What a difference in the nations--and in the crises.

A surreal juxtaposition--an interesting surprise, like a rattlesnake in the mailbox--may disturb and clarify the mind. When you put the Clinton scandal and the Rwandan genocide side by side, each becomes a slightly different thing.

First, perspective: the moral weight of a national crisis is in inverse proportion to a nation's wealth and power. America in its opulence gets presidential docu-porn--what the Washington lawyer Lloyd Cutler calls "Full Monty impeachment," the risky, tiresome romp of a resourceful President who, caught in violations of the school's honor code, violates it further in protesting his innocence.

By contrast, Rwanda (average monthly income: less than $25) gets rivers clogged with corpses. America's wealth entitles its citizens to work themselves into a moral froth over office fellatio. America's vast First World privilege also means that its scandals are infinitely less dangerous to the man and woman in the street. America's samurai of opinion scream at one another on talk shows; political argument in Rwanda means a million people hacked to pieces by machetes.

I thought of the reporting devoted to the two subjects: Gourevitch's book ranks among the best examples of the journalism of moral witness. It speaks with an austerity enforced by the mystery and horror of the genocide.

True evil vs. pathetic misbehavior: the Lewinsky coverage unfolds in a drearily gamy continuum; prime cuts and messy chitterlings from the abattoirs of Starr, Tripp & Drudge get mass-packaged in clingwrap and cardboard for the gaudy supermarkets of the information age.

But you do notice one damning convergence. In 1994, the United States, having been burned in Somalia, was desperate to stay out of Rwanda. How to manage that? By pettifogging. By arguing about semantics: the Clinton way. His Administration, pressed to honor the 1948 Genocide Convention (not to mention human decency) by intervening, quibbled at a furious rate about the meaning of the word genocide. Madeleine Albright, who was Clinton's ambassador to the U.N. in 1994, temporized as the death toll in Rwanda climbed into the hundreds of thousands. It was, as Gourevitch writes, "the absolute low point of her career as a stateswoman." What works first for tragedy will serve later for farce. The casuistry pressed into service to dodge an inconvenient genocide made a later, lighter appearance in Clinton's Jesuitical parsing, under oath, of "is" and "sexual relations."

During his African tour last March, Clinton stopped in Rwanda and eloquently apologized to the survivors gathered at Kigali airport. He used the phrase "never again"--two words of grave historical weight. He said, "And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence." Shy? In any case, did he mean it?

It is worth asking these things in the face of the approaching winter in Kosovo: the genocidal impulses that led the Hutu to slaughter 1 million Tutsi (give or take) in 1994 are (allowing for a few regional differences, such as machetes and skin color) identical to the tribal bloodlusts at work in the Balkans. Eerily the same: the neighbors who suddenly turn a killing fury upon neighbors, the roving bands fueled round the clock on alcohol, the strange, dull light in the murderers' eyes, the sudden civic duty to exterminate the Other.

There is little for the American people to like in the public performances they see. The polls professing satisfaction may mask an alienation, just below the surface, and a generalized disgust at everyone: the screaming media, the nitwit Congress, the ignoble President. Nero gave the people circuses. Clinton is the circus.

The dangerous part now is not the President's distraction by scandal and the prospect of impeachment. The risk lies, rather, in something that the Lewinsky-Rwanda convergence shows: Clinton's willingness to use words as if he did not understand that they have real meanings and consequences, as if his intense, fleeting sincerity--his shoeshine and his smile, or his wagging finger, or sidelong laser glance, or his bitten lip: his sheer performance--were sufficient. We are headed into historical country where they are not. And they never were.


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Cover Date: October 12, 1998

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