April 1994. I was sixteen years old. I had acne, homework, and boy troubles. I didn’t know on the other side of the globe hundreds of thousands were being slaughtered by their friends, neighbors, and relatives.
Eventually news penetrated my safe world. The words “Rwanda” and “genocide” slipped into consciousness. I can’t recall reports or remember conversations about the conflict, only a vague sense that something really bad was going down in Africa, where bad things were always happening anyway.
The OJ Simpson trial, now that was news. I’ll never forget my high school Spanish class abandoning our lesson to crowd around the television and hear the verdict. Oh, the horror! The scandal! We couldn’t talk about anything else for days.
I’d like to say my perspective has grown. That as an adult, knowing the truth, realizing the extent of the evil unleashed during those 100 days in 1994, the month of April is inextricably tied to remembrance of the Rwandan genocide.
If I said that, I’d be lying, because this year I forgot. With every reason to remember—having traveled to Rwanda, fallen in love with its land and people, brought home a daughter whose heritage will be forever linked to the Land of a Thousand Hills—I still forgot.
I forget other things, too. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Vietnam. September 11. Darfur.
Some might argue each country should remember its own triumphs and tragedies. Leave the genocide to Rwanda. What good comes of dwelling on it here in the U.S.? With a dumpy economy and a political nightmare on our hands, who needs one more downer?
This attitude misses the point of remembrance. It isn’t to pity those who suffered or to participate in the obligatory moment of sobriety and silence. Remembrance is about grief, yes, but it’s also about prevention.
History is too easily forgotten. Too easily rewritten. Too easily repeated. Remembrance forces us to hit pause and turn reluctant eyes on the ugly reality of evil. It forces us to acknowledge humanity’s capacity for wickedness and ask, “How did this happen?”
In its most effective form, remembrance brings us to the realization that we—you, I, they—are capable of the worst atrocities given the right circumstances. Only then can we say with conviction, “Never again.”
Most of our national holidays celebrate the high points of history. Might we be a different nation if we also commemorated the low points? Is there any less value in remembering our failures than our triumphs? From which do we learn the greater lesson?