"A genocide begins with the killing of one man – not for what he has done, but because of who he is. A campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' begins with one neighbour turning on another. Poverty begins when even one child is denied his or her fundamental right to education. What begins with the failure to uphold the dignity of one life, all too often ends with a calamity for entire nations..."
~ Kofi Annan
The first person killed in an ethnic conflict plays a vital role in subsequent events. Their body and soul will no longer be their own. Their life and death will be transformed into something it was not for the purpose of stoking or dampening conflict; their bodies paraded by young fascists in an angry funeral procession and their souls idealized as the epitome of either side of a Manichean struggle.
The first death is necessary to legitimize what follows. Genocide or ethnic cleansing are crimes of such a stupendous magnitude that they do not simply appear out of the ether. They almost always are co-ordinated by a centre of unassuming, apparently civilized individuals who can call upon legions of fanatics to carry out their bidding. The exact motivation of these fanatics often seems incomprehensible to those in the civilized nations, who often dismiss refugee stories of atrocities because they cannot believe. "I did not say you are lying, I simply said I cannot believe you," said Felix Frankfurter when he was told of the Holocaust. These men are often motivated by material gain, yet ideology also plays a crucial role. And it is to ideology that the first death is intimately related.
The details of the first man killed in an ethnic conflict will be hotly contested, right down to his identity. The war in the former Yugoslavia is a case in point. The Bosniaks and the Serbs simply cannot agree on who the first casualty was. Serbs say it was Nikola Gardoviæ, killed at a wedding procession in Sarajevo on February 29, 1992, whereas the Bosniaks say it was Suada Dilberoviæ, shot by unidentified gunmen at a peace march on April 5 of the same year. The identity of the first martyr is crucial to the continuing conflict. The first death legitimizes reprisals and the start of the genocide. Once the ball starts rolling the cycle of violence can often not be stopped until it has run out of energy on its own.
For the Nazi movement, the first man dead was Horst Wessel. Wessel was a functionary in the Sturmabteilung (SA), who was shot dead by a Communist Party member and criminal. Goebbels made a cult of the man, idealizing him as at once poet, saint, fighter and revolutionary martyr. He was not actually the first Nazi to have been killed in fighting with other political groups, but he might as well have been. His memory drove the initial campaign to seize power, aided by The Horst Wessel Song which glorified violence and sacrifice -
The flag's held high! The ranks are tightly closed!
SA men march with firm courageous stead.
Together with us, marching in our ranks in spirit, are those
Comrades Red Front and Reaction shot dead!
The death of the first hallowed saint of the movement provides the impetus for the violence that follows. By killing a man of such exemplary virtue the enemy has displayed his depravity; genocidal violence is hence excused as a means of self-defence. In Rwanda it all began with the death of President Juvénal Habyarimana, whose plane was dramatically shot down by Hutu extremists. It hardly mattered that this man was despised by the Hutu fanatics and that they themselves killed him; the Tutsi took the blame, and the most efficient slaughter in history began in earnest. The first death is an excuse to trigger the killing, a match to the tinder of a depravity desperate for an excuse for its actions.
Tacitus once commented that crime, once exposed, has no refuge but in audacity. This rarely means that the criminal brazenly carries out his crime and cheerfully admits to the rest of the world his actions; rather, the criminal prefers to brazenly commit his crime while simultaneously lying about the nature of it. Saddam Hussein liked to claim that the Anfal campaign was targetting Kurdish "rebels", a category he apparently understood to include every Kurdish man, woman and child in Iraq. The first death can only legitimize violence for so long, and it takes propaganda and lies to escalate the conflict. The first death never entirely loses its usefulness, but once its myth has been acted upon new reasons and impetus are bound to arise.
If we understand that a genocide begins with the killing of one man, we are in a position not only to understand the true nature of genocide but also to act against it. This is the difference between "information" and "knowledge" or "understanding" which Holocaust survivors talked about. You and I both know that the Holocaust involved the murder of six million individuals, or that the Rwandan genocide claimed some eight hundred thousand lives. But to fully understand we must recognize that each of these lives had a story, each had a soul, and each loved and was loved. Genocide involves the destruction of all of this. Six. Million. Times.
Annan's speech went on.
"Scientists tell us that the world of nature is so small and interdependent that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rainforest can generate a violent storm on the other side of the earth. This principle is known as the 'Butterfly Effect.' Today, we realize, perhaps more than ever, that the world of human activity also has its own 'Butterfly Effect' – for better or for worse."
Overcoming war, genocide and hatred can begin when human love is extended by one individual to another across boundaries that the fanatics want to make permanent. We hear stories of those who stand up to hatred and murder and shelter those that are supposed to be the enemy, or make sacrifices for the principles of humanity. We each as individuals have a responsibility to reach out across boundaries and to knock boundaries down. Nations are simply aggregates of people, and it is people who make the difference. Peace, like charity, begins at home.