In the past decade, I have published just one new reported article from Rwanda, yet McConnell says my depiction of Kagame is unchanged since the 1990s. Reviewers back then, however, did not think Kagame was the hero of my book—many barely mentioned him at all—but rather they singled out the Hutu hotelier, Paul Rusesabagina (never a friend of Kagame, and for many years now, a sworn foe), or the Hutu school girls who let themselves be killed rather than separate themselves from their Tutsi classmates who were about to be massacred. Many recognized that the West’s abandonment of Rwanda during the genocide is a central theme of my work, and raises a set of issues that can strongly influence how one understand Kagame’s role as the dominant figure in the past two decades of post-colonial Central African history, but McConnell ignores all this.
McConnell says that in my response on the New Yorker blog to a recent UN report alleging, after adamantly proclaiming itself not definitive, that Kagame’s forces might (and also might not have) committed genocide in Congo in the late 1990s, I was too close to the response of the Rwandan government. In fact, the story was that the Rwandans and the UN Secretariat were denying rumors that Kagame had threatened to pull his troops from the Darfur peacekeeping mission, which Rwanda commands, unless the genocide charge was dropped—and I had the letter from Kagame’s foreign minister to the UN secretary general in which that threat was made. So I did what any journalist would do: I posted the letter. How was that spinning for the Rwandans? It put them on the spot. That letter was soon the lead story on the BBC.
I could go on answering McConnell, line by line, but you get the point: to fact-check this piece is to watch it dissolve. And what’s McConnell’s big overall idea? He quotes David Anderson of Oxford (a scholar of late colonial Kenya, not known as an authority on Rwanda), asserting incredibly that Kagame is treated “with kid gloves” by the American and British press. McConnell, however, never lets us hear from the legions of Kagame-mad journalists whom we keep hearing about. Instead, he quotes a few critics of my work, who speak in broad generalities, and all say basically the same thing: that unless your purpose in writing about Kagame is to delegitimize him, you are shilling for him. Such polarizing, academic absolutism is antithetical to good journalism. It privileges pre-judgment over investigation. It is not an argument against bias, but for a politically correct bias.
The only person McConnell quotes who makes a concrete accusation against me is Howard French with his insidious insistence, reprised almost verbatim from his book, that “one of the most important things Gourevitch did was to liken the Rwandan experience to the Israeli experience, to the Holocaust.” French calls this an “emotionally overpowering” move, and “deeply flawed,” and McConnell falls in line, saying that “the comparison influenced American policy in the Clinton era.”
Analogies with the Holocaust and Israel and the Jews are not, in fact, an important part of my Rwanda writings—but it beats me why French thinks that this is such a damning criticism. The crime of genocide was defined in law in 1948 in response to the Holocaust, and carries an inescapable association with the Nazi war against the Jews. If anything, one might argue that the comparison didn’t exert enough influence on the Clinton administration, which did nothing to stop the extermination of Tutsis in 1994 and, in fact, went out of its way to obstruct preventive action by others.
Surely, French (who never, as far as I can tell, reported from Rwanda himself) is wrong to imply that imposing a taboo on comparisons to the Holocaust would strip the story of the Rwandan genocide of its emotional power. That he should be eager for that is bizarre and distasteful.