Archive for July, 2010

I don’t intend to make juxtapositions of the US and Rwanda a running theme here, but some of the issues raised in an Economist briefing sprang forth to me like a con out of an unlocked cell:

Many [US] laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

Here’s an article written by my friend about the arrest of a US lawyer in Rwanda for “genocide denial”:

Ngoga declined to give details of what Erlinder is accused of saying, other than that the statements were made outside Rwanda.

However, the legal source said they concerned remarks made about President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people died.


According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of genocide denial — grossly minimising or attempting to justify the genocide — are liable to 10-20 years in prison.


Rights groups say the law against hate-speech is vague and frequently used by the government to silence opposition.

That sounds kind of crappy, don’t it? But in the US the problem is worse, because you get vagueness and abundance!  Back to the briefing:

“You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title.

We’re all illegals criminals in some way or another—ooo, a tingle just went down my spine.

When the US lawyer was jailed for several weeks in Kigali, every new article about it from The New Times had a quote from someone or another within the criminal justice system pretty much like this:

“The Prosecution of Peter Erlinder is not a political tactic; it is an act of justice. If critics disagree with the Rwandan laws against the denial or defence of Genocide, we invite and welcome that debate.


“The Government of Rwanda takes no pleasure from Mr. Erlinder’s plight, but this needs to be understood; flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our Genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law,” Mushikiwabo said.

“Perhaps Mr. Erlinder thought that his citizenship, academic standing or media profile woul protect him — why else would a law professor so knowingly and deliberately break the law by entering Rwanda? But he failed to understand that Genocide defenders and deniers — however rich, powerful or well connected — are regarded by Rwandans as serious criminals hell-bent on destabilising our nation”.

Last week, Mushikiwabo said that Rwanda would not short-circuit legal procedures and release the lawyer, despite a request by the United States to release him on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

President Kagame has echoed this position in interviews with western media: our laws may not suit you in some ways, but we’re not going to just ignore our laws and let lawbreakers run amok.  One is tempted to argue that justice is better served by a different attitude toward law,  but the fresh aromatics of water hyacinths can be so distracting…

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The 4th of July is a holiday in Rwanda, too. There they celebrate Liberation Day, which commemorates the symbolic end of the genocide in 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by now-president Kagame captured Kigali. As the name attests, they were patriots, too, fighting for the freedom of their people. You might even say they were fighting, as were we, against colonial oppression, which had lingered long after most of the colonials had left in the form of a deeply inculcated mindset which emphasized differences among man more arbitrary than man can usually tolerate. But blood and violence changed that, and a new mindset prevails.  A “liberated” one, Kagame called it today.

Who knows what being liberated means to Kagame, but my year in his country did give me a better sense of what being liberated meant to me.

Americans, especially on days like these, fancy themselves the freest of the free (we’re at least in the top ten, anyway). But this emphasizes a loud fife-and-drum conception of liberty from some tyrannical control, when the real beauty of it is found in a quiet evolved respect for the individual prerogative. The more I jaunt around the globe–itself a wonderful benefit of liberty–the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability to act alone.

In Rwanda, for instance, as in many places around the world, an individual never stops being accountable to and responsible for the family from whence he came. His decisions may not be coerced with the threat of violence, but they aren’t made freely because of the powerful cultural forces at play. He may prefer to live the life of a penniless artist, but can’t because he’s expected to support some lazy cousin and his wife. Liberation from the repression of a culture isn’t even an option, because it may well never occur to the person he’s being repressed. Minorities everywhere are victimless victims.

Wonderfully, liberty does not embrace tradition, though that is the conceit of conservatives. To be liberated is to question always and to be suspicious of settled ways. Decisions are inevitably framed by biases both cognitive and cultural, a fact I understand well coming from a childhood thoroughly saturated with religion. But even in this relatively (for America) repressive environment, I was able to leave it without too much distress. Cultural values were strong, but not omnipotent.

And I could have returned from my rumspringa rather than stayed astray. Though I doubt many Rwandans are liberated by my definition, I may be mistaken. And if nothing else, what provides me the most comfort about liberty is it recognizes confusion, complexity, and all the rest, and makes the most provision for being wholly wrong.

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Here’s what I wrote two years ago:

Standing in a crowded marketplace and watching Germany lose pitifully to Croatia in the Eurocup, I began thinking about two things:

  1. Given that a few early wins by Germany in the 2006 World Cup triggered a surprising surge of national pride and patriotism, would it be possible that a World Cup victory in 2010 would so stir German self-confidence that a shift to a more aggressive, American style of foreign policy might occur?
  2. It is amazing to what extent footballers determine male fashion trends in Europe.

Here’s Nassim Taleb:

Ruh Roh!

Halbfinale wir kommen.

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