“It has happened. So it can happen again.” Philip Gourevitch on genocide


The aftermath in Rwanda (photo: DFID)

We live in an era of genocides. Author Philip Gourevitch is one of its experts, probing how genocide happens, how the murderers rationalize their participation, and how they live with themselves later. With his new research, he reports the on the survivors, who now continue their lives alongside those who have murdered their friends and families. His Entitled Opinions interview is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books channel here.

Gourevitch today (Photo: Victor G. Jeffreys II)

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda was named by The Guardian as one of the top 100 non-fiction books of all time. He is now working on a sequel,  You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know, describing the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, in which Hutus slaughtered 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in a hundred days.  The new book considers how people continue their lives under impossible conditions, and the nature of evil.

Gourevitch has been staff writer at The New Yorker for over two decades, and prior to that editor of The Paris Review.

In his 2016 Entitled Opinions conversation, Gourevitch discusses not only the history of Rwanda, but the complexity of truth, how justice can be a backward-looking concept that rationalizes the thirst for revenge, and how self-comforting notions of “never again” lead us to believe that we are immunized from the repeated cycles of the past. Entitled Opinions host Robert Harrison, a Dante scholar, notes how the Inferno’s damned are often frozen in one moment of their past that forecloses the future – however, in Rwanda, reconciliation was a national necessity. “How on earth do you live with this – both in the local sense, and in the broader sense of all the stories we tell ourselves about our common humanity?” Gourevitch asks.

He also discusses the new genre of his work, creating “books that are based on reporting, that are fact-checkable, that are drawn from intensely close observation and a lot of interviews.” He tries to write in a way that captures not only the facts, but the human pathos he faces as he returns again and again to the land that was the site of what has been one of the greatest genocides since World War II.

The interview is over at the Los Angeles Review of Books channel here.

Potent Quotes

“We were telling ourselves that we stand against these things and it would never happen. But we had done nothing much to stop it. In fact, we got out of the way, even as we were telling ourselves that would never put up with such a thing again.”

“It has happened. So it can happen again. It can happen anywhere. I think that is the truer dark lesson: this is a human potential in humankind, a permanent potential in our condition.”

“There’s no full justice possible in a situation like this. There simply isn’t.”

“Memory and grudge are so close, especially with these historical score-settlings.”

“One of the things that very striking in Rwanda, from early on, was this talk that ‘We’re going to have to have some form of forgiveness.’”

“The problem with justice is that it’s not terribly satisfying, because it is backward-looking.”


One Response to ““It has happened. So it can happen again.” Philip Gourevitch on genocide”

  1. Melissa Green Says:

    Gourevitch’s ‘We Wish To Inform You’ is an unforgettable book, a clear-eyed, deeply humane look at humanity’s most inhumane act. “Never Again’ the watchword after the murder of six million Jews along with homosexuals, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses under the Nazis along with others, became a kind of prayer which Adorno and Wiesel beseeched us to honor. It was soon and repeatedly rendered hollow. I can’t say I actually look forward to Gourevitch’s sequel, You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know, but it will be an essential book, one I will read, and more than once if I can bear it. Thank you, Cynthia.