Thursday, January 28, 2010

Philip Gourevitch reads in Cheyenne

I attended the Philip Gourevitch talk this evening at the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne.

He writes about what happens when human nature is tested under harsh conditions such as war and genocidal rampages.

Humans don't always come down on the side of the angels.

No news for those of us who see the world in shades of color and shadows instead of black-and-white. But do enlightened liberals really know what they'll do when the killing begins? I don't.

I've already started reading his 2008 book, "Standard Operating Procedure," which Gourevitch co-wrote with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. It starts with a chilling scene from October 2002. Saddam releases thousands of prisoners from Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. Six months before the U.S. invasion. Cut to the next chapter, where corrections officials from Utah are driving around Iraq in August 2003 looking for someone to make bunk beds for imprisoned Iraqis. Things get a little out of control after that.

The author read sections from his three books that fall under the heading of "confessions."

First up was a Hutu killer from the Rwandan genocides as told in the award-winning book, "We Wish to Inform You that We Will be Killed with our Families." Then we heard from the professional killer in "A Cold Case." Last but not least -- Lyndie England's story from the Abu Ghraib Prison.

Goureveitch writes beautifully. Corporal England is revealed frame by frame, as in a film. In the book's final interview with her following her release from jail, England is taking antidepressants and says "I don't think about anything." She seems to have no real remorse. But basically she was a prop, a young soldier, unsupervised, at the wrong place at the wrong time.

"The political order you are living under makes a big difference," says Goureveitch. "There's no evidence to show that these people would have done this outside of this political order.

"In a well-run army, girlfriends don't hang out in the prison during the night shift with their boyfriends. This was a systems' problem."

"This is the kind of breakdown you have when you allow torture," he concluded.

The government oversaw the Rwandan slaughter. "This wasn't chaos," says Gourevitch. "The genocide was very well planned. Great organization is required to do such a thing."

In the Q&A session, the author was asked if he had learned any lessons about human nature during research for his books.

According to Gourevietch: "We like to think that there is a categorical difference between those who will do a thing and those who won't. Then come circumstances that put people to the test. Some resist but..."

But others can't and don't. They take their machetes and go next door to hack the neighbors to pieces.

Time to get back to my book...

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