The Thoughtlessness of Killers and the Problem This Causes for Humanity[1]

            In his report on the genocide in Rwanda, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda, Philip Gourevitch tells the experiences of himself and many others in the buildup, events, and aftermath of the tragedy. His interview of the Hutu Power member Girumuhatse is particularly striking, as he seems to have a unique and horrifying evil within his nature. However, in the context of the passage containing the death of Adolf Eichmann in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Girumuhatse’s justifications for his actions become part of a pattern. The lack of conscience within these criminals despite their horrifying misdeeds presents a problem for humans, forcing us to come to terms with the potential for both good and evil in each one of us, and our inability to erase the evil from our nature.

            Gourevitch decided to speak with Girumuhatse because he was not claiming to be innocent, despite having been condemned by Laurencie Nyirabeza for killing her family and wounding her. Before Girumuhatse, Gourevitch “had never encountered anyone who admitted to having taken part in the genocide,”[2]and thus he was interested in discovering what a killer would claim as his defense for his actions. Upon speaking with the man, Girumuhatse claimed that he and other Hutus “were called upon the state to kill. You were told you had the duty to do this or you’d be imprisoned or killed. We were just pawns in this.”[3]He does not deny the act of killing, but he shifts blame from himself to the leaders of the movement in which he took part. In order to rationalize his actions, he made himself believe that there was nothing he could have done, and he was not a perpetrator but victim in his own way. Gourevitch asked Girumuhatse if he was truly threatened with death as a penalty for inaction, and Girumuhatse “could not recall any specific cases of Hutus who had been executed simply for declining to kill.”[4]This means that Girumuhatse’s claim of being forced into murder is baseless; ultimately, he made a free choice to participate in the genocide. He was solely responsible for the death he created, but clearly does not think of the situation in this way. To make matters worse, “Girumuhatse had run a roadblock, and to be the chief of a roadblock was to be not a pawn but a mid-level figure in the local chain of command – a mover of pawns.”[5]Girumhatse, then, was in denial about his culpability in the Rwandan genocide, and decided to assign blame to higher-ups rather than accept and admit that his monstrous acts were his fault alone.

            Girumuhatse’s denial makes sense within the psychological assessment of Eichmann by Arendt. The lack of conscience or reflection that Eichmann had is described as “the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”[6]The passage about Eichmann deepens the understanding of Girumuhatse’s story by putting the practice of rationalizing abhorrent actions into a quotable term, and it displays the pervasiveness of this mental process among evildoers separated by thousands of miles and half a century. Like the SS Officer, Girumuhatse refused to think of himself as a killer, or view his actions as immoral. Arendt explained how an evildoer such as Girumuhatse or Eichmann might rationalize his killing by explaining that “he did his duty… he obeyed the law.”[7]Eichmann’s ability to ignore the consequences of his actions by convincing himself that they were inevitable reinforces the repression of rational understanding that Girumuhatse had. Both men honestly believed that they had acted correctly, not because they believed that killing was morally right, but rather because they convinced themselves that it was not their fault. Arendt’s research on Eichmann enables a psychological analysis of the thoughtless evil by Girumuhatse, whose actions confirm and inform her theories.

            The consumption of the stories of evil, like the ones told by Gourevitch and Arendt, force us to understand the abilities within each of us to inflict evil and pain upon each other. We are not perfect or benevolent; some of us propagate suffering while others do nothing to stop it. In fact, humans don’t even feel compelled to prevent suffering unless it affects them directly. This idea was put quite bluntly by the American military officer whom Gourevitch met at a bar: “Genocide is a cheese sandwich… what does anyone care about a cheese sandwich?”[8]Human nature is exposed as imperfect upon examination of genocide and other violence, and this causes cognitive dissonance for us because we are forced to come to terms with the fact that the same kind of person who can create masterful symphonies can orchestrate the extermination of millions of innocent people. Arendt commented on this idea when she stated of Eichmann how “despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a ‘monster.’”[9]The evil that we see in ourselves can be done by people who seem to be relatively normal, and this fact is troubling when we view the achievements of human thought and culture. We are made to realize that although we can create ingenious and incredible things, it is also in our nature to destroy and commit acts of barbarism. Thus, although we have been striving to create a morally upstanding society, it is human nature is capable of evil, and this cannot be erased.

            Philip Gourevitch’s story of Girumuhatse contained important similarities to Hannah Arendt’s passage about Adolf Eichmann, because in both cases, the evil crimes committed were thoughtless, and the criminals did not truly understand their misdeeds. In order to live with themselves, the men’s minds convinced them that they had no choice but to facilitate genocide. These corresponding accounts are evidence of the necessity for evil to be thoughtless; they explain that the way that humans cause such suffering is by removing themselves from responsibility. We are challenged by this idea because it shows an inherent flaw in the people whose creations are studied and praised, and we are forced to accept that the evil which has been inside of us since the creation of society still exists, and perhaps may never be expunged.


Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press, 1963.

Gourevitch, Philip. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda. New York: Picador USA, 1998.

[1]In order to revise this essay (and other projects that we had in the Humanities course) we followed these steps: first, a rough draft was submitted. After the draft, we met with a fellow and professor in order to revise for our final draft. After our final draft, we met with a professor one more time to go over any last weaknesses in our work. This revision is a reworking of my final draft for Project 3 based off of my second professor meeting, and is thus a third draft of the paper. In order to improve my draft, I worked on framing my thesis better in the introduction and conclusion. Instead of claiming that we are all Eichmanns, I claim that we all have the capability to be Eichmann. And instead of taking Gourevitch’s interview with Girumuhatse as completely reliable, I question the evil nature of Girumuhatse and investigate whether Arendt’s work on Eichmann supports the possible presence of this evil in Eichmann. Finally, I reworked pronoun usage and specific word choice to improve clarity.

[2]Philip Gourevitch, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from Rwanda(New York: Picador USA, 1998), 305.

[3]Gourevitch, 307.

[4]Gourevitch, 307.

[5]Gourevitch, 307.

[6]Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (New York: Viking Press, 2016), 252.

[7]Arendt, 135.

[8]Gourevitch, 170.

[9]Arendt, 54.