Imagine, just for a moment, that you live in the greater Los Angeles area. (I know - that's already quite a jump for many of you.) Now imagine that one day, after months of heightening tension, several hundred thousand Angelenos agree to murder more than one million of their neighbours.
Who? That hardly matters. Tall people, let's say. Or illegal immigrants. Or Asian people. Or people with blue eyes. Some 15% of the population, anyhow. Everybody knows who they are, and you can usually pick them out in a crowd, and if there is any doubt, all you have to do is check their driver's licenses.
How? Not with guns, at least not usually. That's too good for them. Bullets cost money. Maybe sometimes, especially if the victim pays for a quick death, but the weapons of choice are much more basic: axes, hammers, machetes, kitchen knives, crowbars, baseball bats, clubs.
Why? Oh, well. You know. The usual reasons.
The government doesn't stand in the way. The local government is the way. The mayor's office has been planning the slaughter for years. The killers have practised for months, in death squads that began as community groups, football fan clubs. They have lists, names, addresses. They fan out, tens of thousands of them, through almost all the greater L.A. area; they knock on doors, break them down, kill whole families in their homes, or drag them out onto their lawns to execute them in public.
That's just the beginning. The bloodlust spreads like an infection. Roadblocks shut down all the highways and the major streets; victims trying to escape are dragged from their cars and hacked to death beside the road. Killers go through whole regions, doing house-to-house searches. Children proudly tell passing death squads where their neighbours are hidden. Doctors invite murderers into hospitals to kill their patients. Maybe a week has passed now. Corpses litter the streets. Inmates are released from prisons to clean them up, piling them and burning them, or digging mass graves.
Turn on the television, and you see Jay Leno on TV, and his usual lineup of celebrity guests, or the mayor and the chief of police - and they all agree, soberly or excitedly, that the victims must all be killed. Turn on the radio; every DJ is saying the same thing. "Exterminate the cockroaches," they say - that's what the killers call the victims. "Wipe them out. Every one of them. To your work, all of you. The graves are not yet full."
The federal government talks vaguely about maybe doing something sometime - but in fact, they have pulled 90% of their troops out of the area, and those that remain hide in their bases and do nothing. No help is coming. The killings continue.
Those victims that fled the initial wave - maybe half of them - don't have many options. They can't escape; every road out of the city is blocked, as is the airport. They can't hide forever, not with house-to-house searches, most of their neighbours all too eager to inform on them if not just murder them themselves, and food running low. Desperate phone calls, a few notices on TV and radio, maybe the Internet - all these leads guide them to shelters. After all, this madness can't last forever, and not everyone is affected. A few police, a few community leaders, priests, city councillors, still hope to let them live.
The west, Venice and Santa Monica, is relatively safe; hordes of victims flee there. Others go to mass shelters, guarded by a few police, believing there is safety in numbers. Thousands huddle in the Mann Chinese Theatre, tens of thousands in the Staples Center. They have no food, no water, no support, and the handful of police who guard them are often almost as threatening as the killers. And there is nowhere to go.
(That part may, since Katrina and the Superdome, be easier to imagine than the rest...)
Others, sympathizers, good men and women, try to hide them in their homes - though it's not easy. Sympathizers, political opponents, anyone who speaks out for the victims, immediately become victim themselves. Old personal scores are settled, false denouncements made, a few more deaths lost in the tide of blood. Many are forced to participates, made to come to roadblocks or on searches or to newly discovered victim hiding places; knives and clubs are given to them, and they are told to kill or be killed. In the new social order, the one to come after all the victims are dead, everyone must be equal; everyone must be guilty.
Almost all who face this choice comply with the demand. Few even begin to protest.
The federal government keeps arguing about whether they're going to do something. They don't. And the killing spreads to those areas previously untouched. The death squads flood through Venice and Santa Monica, herding the victims to the beach, killing them in huge crowds. There is mass rape, looting, burning of whole city blocks. An orgy of blood and destruction.
The killers throw grenades into the Mann Chinese Theatre, shoot machine guns into it indiscriminately, then wade through the blood-slick seats to finish off those that survive with machetes. It takes days. Killing people by hand is hard work. The slaughter in the Staples Center takes more than a week. Sometimes, too exhausted to actually murder those trying to escape, the killing mobs - by now, drunk or drugged almost all the time - just sever their Achilles tendons, then come back to finish the job in the morning, near where they left them.
More than a month of murder has passed. The streets of LA are almost empty, but for the roadblocks, and the dancing, drunken, stoned, looting mobs that man them. No one else dares to go outside. Those few starving, desperate, bedraggled victims who have somehow survived - survival is, by now, a strange aberration; you ask yourself how it could have happened to you - have learned the warning signs. You don't go where there are clouds of birds, or hordes of dogs. They are feeding on corpses. The federal troops, surreally, come forth sometimes to shoot the dogs. Because they're a health hazard. But they don't do anything about the massacres.
Finally a federal relief force comes. But it seems almost as if they are on the side of the killers. The victims are treated with great suspicion, and almost as many are abandoned to be killed as are saved. Only a few areas are 'protected'. The massacres continue in the rest of the city, and it begins to seem almost as if the killers will actually achieve their goal, and reduce an entire people to only a memory, when finally an army invades from Mexico, and ends the slaughter at last.
It's not the end, of course. One wonders if there will ever be an end. The killers - and there are hundreds of thousands of them - and their families, and masses of others fearing reprisal, almost two million refugees in all, flee into the hills and the desert.
But in some ways the most amazing part of the story comes two years later, when finally, after battles and tentative talks, most of the refugees return at last to Los Angeles, and those few victims who survived are asked to forgive.
I'm talking about Rwanda, of course, in whose capital, Kigali1, I sit and type. Greater LA is comparable, in size and population. For "the federal government" read "the international community." Many have called the genocide here eleven years ago "incomprehensible." I can't agree - anyone who thinks that is, I fear, an exceedingly poor student of human nature - but it is very hard to imagine. Translating it to LA makes that easier, a least little bit, at least for me. A decidedly mixed blessing.
A little oversimplified history for you:
The two largest migrations of humanity in recent African history (ie the last couple thousand years) are those of the Nilotic people, from ancient Nubia (now Ethiopia/Sudan) to the south, and the great diaspora of the Bantu, from the corner near present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, to almost all of the continent south of the desert. The Nilotic people, such as the Maasai in Kenya, the Karamojong in the Sudan, and the Tutsi in Rwanda, were cattle herders; the Bantu, who form most of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa today, were farmers. They displaced or simply wiped out the previous inhabitants such as the Batwa2 pygmies or Khoisan hunter-gatherers en route. (And the Dutch actually got to Cape Town before the Bantu.)
In Rwanda and Burundi, the high, hilly, fabulously gorgeous "Switzerland of Africa", the Tutsi and Hutu lived for centuries in a feudal system, with the former firmly in charge.3 In 1885, at the famous Berlin Conference in which Africa was partitioned between the colonial powers, both were declared colonies of Germany, an act with a whole lot of chutzpah seeing as how no European had ever been to either. When the Germans finally did arrive, they found the most advanced, most organized, and (by far) most densely populated nations in all Africa, already established in their present-day borders. During the colonial years, the Germans and (after WWI) the Belgians simply tapped into the existing elaborate and very thorough power structure. Then, at independence, the bloodshed between Hutus and Tutsis began, culminating eleven years ago with the murder of some 800,000 Tutsis over the course of one hundred days.
It was the dense, highly networked, centuries-old social organization, maybe, that led to the mob-mind groupthink mass-murder obedience during the genocide. That's just a guess. But it's the least depressing guess available, so I'm going to go with it. And it means it couldn't really happen in today's LA, right? Because people wouldn't do that, right? Or at least, if other people saw it happening, they wouldn't turn their collective back and spend months arguing about what to do when they got around to maybe doing something, right?
1A note on pronunciation: Rwanda roo-wan-da (should probably be translated as Ruwanda, like Ruwenzori). Kigali is chi-gal-ee; most Kinyarwanda Ks are hard, but their capital city is a a rare exception.
2'Tutsi' and 'Hutu', and 'Twa', are actually root words. One speaks of 'mutwa' (a Twa person), 'watwa' (many Twa people), or 'batwa' (the Twa people). Simlarly, one might refer to 'muzungu' (one white person), 'watutsi' (many Tutsi people), or 'Bahutu' (the Hutu).
3Philip Gourevitch claims that the Belgian colonists basically invented the Hutu-Tutsi divide, but according to every other source, this is just not true. There is no doubt, however, that they codified it by putting one's ethnicity on one's all-important identity card, and played the two groups off against one another at least to some extent.