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Commentary: Lessons From Rwanda

By Dawn McMullan, Commentator

Dallas, TX –

I'm sure everyone has a little advice for President Barack Obama. Here's mine: Get rid of fringe radio.

Of course, you can't do that in America. But having returned recently from a trip to Rwanda, I'm a little sensitive to the fringe.

A little background:

In 1994, as you probably know, one million people were murdered in the Rwandan genocide. The simple explanation is this the Hutus (which make up 85 percent of the population) tried to systematically rid the country of the Tutsis. This was a low-tech genocide, involving machetes and radios. The streets of this Maryland-sized country were filled with bodies as genocidaires, as they are called, roamed the cities and countryside, urged on by screaming propaganda coming out of their radios.

I spent nine days in Rwanda, traveling with a few members of my church to work with orphans of the genocide and AIDS. To prepare for the trip, we all read more than anyone wants to know about the country's genocide. When we arrived, it was difficult not to picture what the country must've looked like then the streets filled with bodies like we saw in the movie Hotel Rwanda. But at some point, we saw hope and reconciliation instead of death and hate.

I met Richard on a five-hour trek across the country. You can learn a lot in five hours. Richard is 32. His parents were killed in the genocide, as were his brothers, including a twin. He and his three sisters made up what is left of his family.

You don't want to ask how someone gets beyond that. You don't want to ask what kind of psychological damage it does to lose a twin, to be the last male survivor in your family.

And he didn't offer up any such analysis. When I asked whether Hutus were still 85 percent of the population, he explained which I knew that they don't talk about Hutus and Tutsis anymore. "We are all Rwandans," he told me.

His comment reminded me of Barack Obama at the 2004 Democratic Convention: "There's not a liberal America and a conservative America. There's the United States of America."

Of course, he's wrong. But he's hopeful. And I sincerely hope this idea takes root.

Instead, what I fear has already taken root is the hate between the red and the blue. I listen to right-wing radio occasionally as a nod to my conservative father. It's a marathon in patience. During the election I was up to about four minutes before I have to switch back to NPR.

I've never had satellite radio so I didn't have experience with Air America or any of the left-wing radio shows until recently when a friend in New York introduced me to the other side of the fringe. Sure, I agreed with much of the politics being espoused. But there was that tone: sarcasm and condescension, bordering on hate. The cadence is different yet just as recognizable as a Southern preacher in a tent.

Of course, this is not propaganda radio inciting people use machetes against men, women, and children, to "cut them down like trees" as one heard in the streets of Rwanda in 1994. America is not on the verge of genocide. I get that.

But the hate and lies are there. Our country's reconciliation has nothing on the task Rwandans have been undertaking for the past 15 years. The majority of them participated in genocide. While the government has worked hard to bring the leaders of the genocide to justice, there are millions of what are called "level three" killers who were in a kill or be killed position. Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the end of the genocide, realized the government couldn't put all these people in prison for life. Most have been released back into the community. So your next-door neighbor may have killed your father, your sister, your child.

And they are living together, peacefully. Really.

My friend Richard says about his country: "I think Rwanda is going to be paradise."

I can only hope the same for my country. A good start would be turning off the fringe radio. Seriously, if Rwanda can do it, what's our excuse?

Dawn McMullan is a freelance writer from Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.