KIGALI, Rwanda -- At the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, the most moving moments were unplanned. In the audience at Amahoro Stadium, first one woman, then another, then dozens in turn, cried out in uncontrollable anguish and had to be escorted from the ceremony. They were overwhelmed by memory. In their screams you could hear the screams of two decades ago.
The day before, while visiting the Nyamata Church Memorial near Kigali, I listened to a survivor named Alice recall a few of the 800,000 genocide victims: her father, her mother, her sister, her brother, her firstborn child, all killed at that Catholic church in April 1994, all buried in the vault below our feet. There is a scar left by a machete on Alice's face. She shows the mark from a spear on her left side. The Hutu man who attempted to murder her later apologized in a community court and is now her neighbor. Alice spoke of "an obligation to forgive, to heal, to move forward." As a nation, Rwanda must either forgive the unforgivable or destroy itself with rage.
A walk down some steps leads to the crypt of the memorial. Piles of bones and skulls on shelf after shelf, reaching back into darkness. Skulls sliced by machetes. Skulls broken by clubs. And the skulls of the children. The passage is tight; death at close range, as intimate as were the killings, done by hand, face to face, one by one. There are 45,083 people buried at the site. The remains of families are kept in caskets together.
Why not simply put such horrors behind us? Among other reasons, because the perpetrators wanted the victims forgotten. Genocides are often intended, perversely, as new beginnings. In Cambodia, it was Year Zero; in Germany, the inauguration of a thousand-year Reich. Some Rwandan perpetrators justified the killings as necessary for the sake of their children. The world would be washed and purified. This intention is defeated by remembrance, by historical specificity, by the affirmation that every human story is more important than the diseased narratives of dictators and killers. A genocide tries not only to kill victims, but to erase them. So: speak their names, show their pictures, cry out at their memory.
After 1994, Rwanda faced the impossible task of building a unified national identity on the ruins of a very recent genocide. Few would have predicted the miracle of recovery that followed. This is now a forward-looking nation of fine roads and swept sidewalks and power lines and safe streets and women's rights and decent hospitals. Rwanda's government has prioritized political order, built technocratic rather than institutional legitimacy, and dared critics to judge it by its outcomes. However the critics judge, the resilience and achievements of Rwandans themselves are remarkable. One unexpected contribution has been the emergence of Rwandan soldiers as capable peacekeepers in conflicts from Darfur to the Central African Republic. No country takes "never again" with greater seriousness.
In other countries, that seriousness has varied. During the Rwandan genocide, the American response was a model of negligence, indifference and abdication. While an average of 8,000 people were being slaughtered each day, the Clinton administration resisted using the word "genocide," supported the withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers, then fought against their reinforcement.
But this much accrues to President Bill Clinton's credit: He eventually apologized for American inaction. During the last two decades, he has seemed genuinely stricken. This has helped transform the American (and global) memory of the Rwandan genocide. If Clinton had insisted on the complexity and defensibility of his choice -- so soon after Black Hawk Down in Somalia, so distant from traditional American interests -- the lesson would still be debated and blurred. Through his conspicuous regret, Clinton has affirmed a norm: Those who fail to act in the face of genocide are harshly judged, even by themselves.
In fact, policy choices in such matters are generally complex, as in Syria and the Central African Republic today. And it is important to construct a variety of intermediary options between the abdication of 1994 and direct U.S. intervention. All-or-nothing decisions on atrocity prevention are likely to result in nothing.
But following the Rwandan genocide, choosing the option of inaction requires the betrayal of a vivid, recent historical memory. In the end, those with murderous intent view impunity as an invitation. And those who choose to be bystanders find that the cries of grief become indictments, and that the graves cannot be unfilled.
Michael Gerson's email address is email@example.com.
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group