We don’t talk about the genocide in places like the Congo, writes Stanley Crouch, because we can’t face up to who’s really responsible for the rape and slaughter.
When I read Tina Brown’s recent piece about new sexual crimes in the Congo, I thought of Leymah Gbowee. Full of figure, heart, and so much soul it glows through her toenails, Gbowee is the Liberian woman who organized and led a movement to victory over levels of kidnap, rape, torture, and murder that should raise high holy hell to a deafening pitch but does not for one reason. Most of Africa’s present demons and villains are black, not white. These atrocities remain as common to the African blues as sunlight is to summer.
In The Greatest Silence, a soldier says that with death happening around him constantly any woman he comes upon might be his very last chance to have sex before he meets his looming destruction.
Tina Brown had met Gbowee at an international women’s conference sponsored by The Daily Beast and was impressed by what one woman from Liberia was attempting to spread through the continent at large. Tina gave a breakfast for Gbowee at her home, and I said at one point to our editor’s husband, Harold Evans, that things would move along much faster if the perpetrators of the burningly cold atrocities in the Congo were French or Belgian. A white villain is always a good thing when you want action from those who claim to be liberal and high-minded.
The reason seems to be a misplaced sense of loyalty and a very crude culture of political etiquette that is the worst version of political correctness. While post-colonial governments are too often where hot mess appears to continually hit the fan, the victims of rebel troops in the Congo are not discussed enough because of what the nearly unbearable HBO documentary about epidemic Congolese rape and sexual sadism called The Greatest Silence.
We do not hear much because we are not thought to perfectly understand what has happened. Cool down before riding your war horse into a rant against those damaged by colonialism, some say with a curt feeling of knowing all there is to know.
After all, the indigenous Congolese once lost their hands so that King Leopold of Belgium could have the necessary rubber removed from the Congo in order to meet the booming business that came with the refinement of the bicycle, a new leisure toy. European boys symbolically rolled across hacking fields in which human hands were stacked high, rotted, and left to await future anthropologists questioning how and why those hands were cut away. A primitive ritual, perhaps? No doubt. The master race at play.
The descendants of such weathered victims could never, of course, be responsible for atrocities themselves. If they were, we just might have to contemplate the fact of evil—that is has no single address, which determines its universal invincibility. We might also have to face the tragedy of human life: Everyone is only innocent at the point of birth. Afterward, anything can happen and often does.
But some things do change above just as they do below.
On one level, the actions of the Serbians in Bosnia made it clear that the icy traditions of tribal war remain in place even after the death and defeat of Adolf Hitler, the most formidable tribal warrior of the modern age. Hitler’s Third Reich fused sophisticated technological innovation to bloodlust; the bloodlust posed and was presented as a high moral fixation on cleansing society through removing its vermin, here, there, and everywhere. Germany’s crimes were so extreme due to making use of modern machinery that had no precedent. Hitler had a very basic philosophy adhered to by all tribalists, whether in big cities or deep in the bushes: We are better than they and the very existence of such complete human vermin is a threat to our own existence.
We should all realize that Bosnia, above all else, revealed that Europeans are the same cowards in our time that they were in the 1930s when the leaders of Europe attempted to appease Hitler into non-action. Further, Serbian paranoia gave us a better understanding of actions down south where the savages were thought to rule as lords of the flies.
Though memory of Hitler’s methods did not save many Bosnians from genocide, the hysteric ease with which Serbians murdered Bosnians did do one good thing for which we can be grateful: they lifted the veil of innate savage from the African.
Otherwise, when Rwanda sank completely into hysterical Hitlerian methodology, every supporter of colonialism would have wagged a finger and said with great condescension, “This never happened under the mother countries when they kept these savage people from slaughtering each other.”
Unless such people are willing to display the implacable public racism of our own All-American rednecks, they might still believe such terrible stuff and nonsense but would have a terrible time trying to convince anyone with but a thimble full of brains that any people anywhere in the world have a more natural access to slaughter, torture, and rape than any other. The desire for human blood on its teeth transcends all particulars just as the desire to have young boys assume the position for certain priests transcends the majesty of the Roman Catholic Church.
Given the great silence, one would think that those Africans are priests in military drag who drug child soldiers so that they are more ready for the butchery of war and the noises of women being raped and sodomized in the heartless hours following battle.
One of the rebels in the Congo interviewed in The Greatest Silence says what may be quite common. He essentially makes the statement that with death happening around him constantly, any woman he comes upon might be his very last chance to have sex before he meets his looming destruction. Given the possibility of impending oblivion, he takes sex from any available woman because he does not have the time to court and convince.
His explanation might be the oldest and most accurate in the history of rape and war. It could be brutally thumbing one’s nose at encroaching finality since sex always symbolizes the possibility of regeneration, new life, and vibrant futures. But it is not enough to excuse any of the forms of sexual abuse so excessive that they leave the most brutalized women incapable of controlling their urine. One doctor was so traumatized by the sight of such a woman that he could not work through his numbness for a bit before sucking up all of the nausea he found inescapable. The patient had been raped and sodomized then held over a fire until her buttocks were almost burned away. The doctor did not understand that level of cruelty and there are probably few on the earth who can.
In Pascal Bruckner’s recent essay The Tyranny of Guilt, we finally get an argument that should move those ready away from the masochistic acceptance of blame for every bad thing in the world. When Western people excuse Third World horrors as the jerking of helpless knees bashed with European and American sledge hammers, a form of evil not so old begins to form like a film on a pool of water. What is actually being expressed is a sense of the endless power that puts the West in the position of a deity controlling all of the human universe.
The comic Flip Wilson used to use “The devil made me do it” as an endlessly mutable punch line. The Nation of Islam taught its zombies, as Malcolm X called the followers of the racist cult, that the white man was a devil made for no good whatsoever 6,000 years ago.
As Pascal Bruckner makes clear, the white man has explained the wrongs of the world as his fault and has pinned the tail of the devil on himself for a few centuries. As a dodge, totalitarians of all colors and climes have posed the same explanation for the troubles of the world. It is a tragic bal masque in which whites will accept being responsible for ruining everything if they can no longer run everything. The narcissism of a self-pitying sense of superiority remains in place.
Not everyone fails to recognize this.
As an unfairly beautiful Senegalese businesswoman said to me, “Europeans and white Americans have replaced their favorite African tale of Rousseau’s noble savage with the equal lie of Africans who cannot run their countries well and cannot resist terrible behavior, which is all the result of colonialism. That bullshit neither walks nor flies. In fact, it would do the world some good if these Western people faced the truth that all African women must face. Bad things do not need passports and they can go anywhere if the people themselves don’t resist or don’t know how. The only foreign aide that we need right now is the truth. Everything else is ready to move beyond all of this corruption, rape and massacre. Let the best of us create a new beginning together.”
I felt the same thing listening to the tales of Leymah Gbowee at the home of Tina Brown. She broke our hearts with her memories of the abuse that Liberian women went through before they organized and got a leg up on their dilemmas of being sexual spoils of war. With her Liberian accent, she also put something into the air of the room that I had witnessed before from women during the Civil Rights Movement. Gbowee inspired us with her unbowed faith in the coming victory of a democracy firmly based in our collective humanity.
This magnificent woman said that when she was about to give it all up and sit down in defeated silence, she was shown evidence that a woman nursing her baby had been killed, her breast lopped off and left in the mouth of her child.
Like all true and tender warriors, Leymah Gbowee said without the slightest sentimentality that she then knew that she would work forever if necessary because someone had to speak for these people. And if not she, whom?
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006, his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. Next year, the first volume of his biography of Charlie Parker will appear.