In the words of German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” In other words, bystanders perpetuate wrongdoing. On an interpersonal scale, most people agree that bystanders have a responsibility to intervene. However, when you put the concept of responsibility into a global context, it complicates things, to say the least. This is especially true when it comes to one of the worst evils of all: genocide.
In 1994, the Clinton Administration instructed its spokespeople not to characterize the daily massacres in Rwanda as “genocide,” even when senior officials believed that was precisely what was occurring. The administration wanted to avoid inciting public pressure for intervention (For context, the United States had just pulled American troops out of a disastrous U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia—later made infamous in the book Black Hawk Down—the year before.) In response, the federal government planned to avoid intervening in any conflict it couldn’t understand, between tribes it wasn’t familiar with, in a country where the United States had no national interests.
The United States kept its promise during the slaughter of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda, despite receiving intelligence about the bloody conflict in real-time. Embassies in Kigali published daily death tolls; for 100 days, an average of 8,000 people were murdered per day—all while the United States turned a blind eye. The American government received a flood of reports detailing victims being maimed by the militia, as well as Hutu gangs with rifles searching out children hiding in churches and school buildings. In total, the génocidaires wiped out 70% of Rwanda’s Tutsi population and raped half a million women. While the United States condemned the scale and brutality of the massacre, the government refused to call it “genocide” to avoid public pressure to intervene and stop the killings forcefully. In fact, no other country intervened either, as the entire world fell victim to a “bystander mentality.”