When Good Men Do Nothing, Part 1: American Response to Rwandan Genocide

When Good Men Do Nothing, Part 1: Genocide in Rwanda

By David Metcalfe

August 13, 2017

Black Lives Shattered

In Genesis chapter 9, after Ham dishonoured his father, Noah put a curse on his descendants, saying they will be “the servants of servants”. During the Middle Ages, Christians, Jews, and Muslims commonly believed that Ham’s descendants went to Africa, and that all Africans were the descendants of this cursed race of people. Enslaving them was perceived as simply part of the natural order of things as God intended. The purpose of black skin was to signify who is cursed, and white skin to signify who is blessed.

Although black people were often tribal and primitive, there were elements of civility and sophistication, especially in the North-Eastern areas of Africa. The people there also happened to have lighter skin. It was believed that these areas of higher civilization had been influenced by superior, lighter colored races of African people. In the mid 19th century, the superior “Hamitic race” was separated from that of the inferior “Negroid” population by European colonizers (Sanders, 1969).

One such place where this separation played an especially important factor was in Rwanda. The Hutus were believed to have come from central Africa, and were deemed to be primitive savages. The Tutsis were believed to have come from the Middle East, looked more like Europeans, and were considered more intelligent (Vernallia, 2006). The Tutsis had ruled Rwanda since approximately the 15th century, until the Hutus, who comprised majority of the population, seized control by force in the 1960’s (Johnson, 2017). In 1990, the Tutsis launched a civil war to get back the country. It was mostly soldiers killing each other in small battles here and there, that is, until April of 1994 (Prunier, 1998).

April, 1994 in Rwanda was quite possibly the worst and most brutal slaughter of any people group ever seen. Although the Holocaust killed more people overall, it was over the course of several years, and majority of the killing was quick. The Tutsis had no such fortune. From April to July, there were over 1 million Tutsis and Hutu moderates killed (National Commission, 2012). The Hutu militia spared no one. Of the million killed, just less than half were women. Nearly every woman was raped before being killed. In many cases, multiple times (de Brouwer, 2005). In fact, Hutu extremists released hundreds of patients from hospitals who were suffering from HIV/AIDS in order to form “rape squads”, that would cause a slow, painful death for their victims (Drumbl, 2012).

Land of the Free, Home of the Naive

In the end, the American military stepped in and saved everyone from the horrific violence. Oh wait, they didn’t do that at all. America actually did nothing the entire time. The only reason it ended was because the Tutsi army eventually regained control, but not before having nearly 75% of their population murdered, and over 50% of the female population raped (National Commission, 2012). The United Nations was invented precisely to prevent things like this from happening! And the United States, as the wealthiest and most powerful of the nations, is held to an especially high standard. As vicious and violent as the Hutus were, they were no match for American soldiers. Majority of the killing of innocent women and children was done by men with machetes and knives, many of whom didn’t even have guns. United States didn’t have to get involved in the conflict between soldiers. That is a fight that they have no necessary obligation to, and would have proven difficult. But there is good reason to believe that they could have very easily and effectively saved the lives of thousands of people if they had just gotten involved in a peacekeeping mission to defend civilians. So, why didn’t they?

Oh Say, Can You See the Atrocities Occurring?

It’s not as if they didn’t know what was happening. The Clinton administration was actually made aware of the proposed plan of genocide against the Tutsis long before it actually happened. During the genocide, United States officials were updated daily on what was going on (Carroll, 2004). It was not a matter of ignorance. America knew exactly what was happening, and willingly chose not to get involved. I would suggest that there are three main reasons why United States allowed the Rwandan genocide to happen:

1) “It’s Not My Problem”

Despite early optimism following World War II, America quickly realized that they were incapable of solving all of the world’s problems. The Cold War and the quest for dominance as a capitalist, Christian, and freedom loving empire resulted in a number of conflicts, of which many were done in vain, and with bad motives. Into the 90’s, America still wanted to help people be free from tyranny, and together with the United Nations, sought to uphold human rights wherever they might be infringed upon. But they knew they couldn’t just go anywhere guns blazing. They had to choose their battles wisely. In October of 1993, America chose wrong.

The controversial, award winning movie “Black Hawk Down” has become synonymous with the United States failed mission in Somalia. The mission was not completed, and 18 American soldiers were killed. As a result of this failed mission, in 1993, the United States vowed not to meddle in affairs of African countries that were not directly affecting them (Martinez, 2017).

Six months later, when word came about the growing conflict in Rwanda, it sounded very similar to Somalia. It was not something that had any perceived affect on Americans, and may cost American lives. It was some small African country that no one really cared about. The Tutsis and Hutus had been fighting for decades, and this was something they would have to settle on their own. America chose to shove it under the rug, and hoped it would go away. They carried an attitude of “It’s not my problem”.

2) “I Don’t Know How to Solve It”

The other important idea America adopted after Somalia was that it would never return to a conflict it couldn’t understand, and between clans and tribes it didn’t know (Baldauf, 2009). The idea was, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to not do anything at all. I would suggest, however, that the relationship between incompetence and action is largely determined by the severity and desperation in a given situation. Say, for example, I was a passenger in an airplane, and the pilot said, “Hey, I’ll give you 5 dollars if you can land this plane by yourself”. I would say that due to my high level of incompetence, the stakes of 5 dollars do not warrant action on my part. However, if everyone in the plane had been knocked unconscious except for me, I would say that despite my incompetence, the severity and desperation warrant action on my part to try and land the plane.

Rwanda was a crashing plane, with everyone knocked unconscious, and America thought they were being offered 5 dollars to land the plane. Yes, America would have gone in partially incompetent, and may have failed, but the severity of the situation more than warranted some type of action.

3) “What’s In It For Me?”

From America’s perspective, what was the best-case scenario if they intervened? Spend tens of millions of dollars, lose American lives, and have the conflict between the groups continue on until the effort is exhausted and the Americans pack up and leave. That really was the best possible scenario. Believing that America could spend no money, have no deaths, and create a permanent peace between two groups that have been enemies for centuries was just not plausible. The worst-case scenario was that America would get caught up in it, spend billions of dollars, have thousands of deaths, and not even solve the violence.

Now, I like to think that the effort in Somalia was done out of pure altruism. But when someone wins the lottery, I have trouble believing Mark from seventh grade genuinely just wants to “catch up” with them. In fact, In 1992, just before America got involved in Somalia, it was discovered that Somalia may be sitting on one of the largest untouched oil reserves in the world (Vella, 2017). All of a sudden, Americans were “inspired” to go to Somalia to “help” people. I wouldn’t personally go so far as to say that oil was the determining factor. I won’t even say that about Iraq. What I will say, however, is that Mark from seventh grade has remarkable timing. America is Mark from seventh grade, and Somalia and Iraq were both potential lottery winners.

Rwanda is no wellspring of oil. It’s not really a wellspring of anything. It’s a farming and mining economy that barely survives on it’s limited production. I wonder, if Rwanda had massive oil reserves, would America’s response have been different? I’m not sure, but I do know that Mark from seventh grade doesn’t want to “catch up” with the people who grew up to be poor.


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”   Edmund Burke

The Rwandan genocide was quite possibly the most horrific three months in human history. It came from centuries of racism gradually developing, and was accentuated by the European colonizers. In 1994, this tension between the groups erupted in tragedy. America, although fully capable of helping, did almost nothing. America didn’t help for three main reasons: they didn’t think it was their problem to deal with, they didn’t know how to solve it, and there was nothing in it for them. Upon visiting Rwanda in 1998, then President Bill Clinton apologised for his lack of action that ultimately allowed the genocide to occur (Carroll, 2004).



Baldauf, S. (2009). Why the US didn’t intervene in the Rwandan genocide. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2009/0407/p06s14-woaf.html

Carroll, R. (2004). US chose to ignore Rwandan genocide. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/mar/31/usa.rwanda

de Brouwer, Anne-Marie. (2005). Supranational Criminal Prosecution of Sexual Violence: The ICC and the Practice of the ICTY and the ICTR. Antwerp and Oxford: Intersentia.ISBN 978-90-5095-533-1.

Drumbl, Mark A. (2012). “‘She makes me ashamed to be a woman’: The Genocide Conviction of Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, 2011”. Michigan Journal of International Law2013.SSRN 2155937

Johnson, B. (2017). Why is there conflict between Tutsis and Hutus? Thoughtco. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/location-of-conflict-tutsis-and-hutus-3554918

Martinez, L. (2017). Inside the US military’s mission in Somalia. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/International/inside-us-militarys-mission-somalia/story?id=47239816

National Commission For The Fight Against Genocide. (2012). Retrieved from http://cnlg.gov.rw/genocide/background/#.WOqNvaJBrIU

Prunier, G. (1998). The Rwanda Crisis, 1959–1994: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). London: C. Hurst & Co. Publishers. ISBN 978-1-85065-372-1.

Sanders, E. (1969). The hamitic hypothesis; its origin and functions in time perspecive. The Journal of African History,10(4), 521-532. doi:10.1017/S0021853700009683

Vella, H. (2017). Extracting Somali oil: is the risk worth the reward? Offshore Technology. Retrieved from http://www.offshore-technology.com/features/featureextracting-somali-oil-is-the-risk-worth-the-reward-5742669/

Vernellia R. (2006). “Sexual Violence and Genocide Against Tutsi Women”University of Dayton.










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