A Case of Moral Heroism: Sympathy, Personal Identification, and Mortality in Rwanda


What sort of person chooses to remain in a place like Rwanda when an easy exit is offered, when leaving seems the only safe or sane option, and when one is not directly connected to the would-be victims? And how does this person come to develop a circle of care that is expansive enough to include those who are radically Other? In what follows, I consider these questions through a detailed examination of the recent example of Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu hotel manager in Kigali, Rwanda, who sheltered more than a thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu refugees during the hundred-day genocide. I argue that Rusesabagina was primarily motivated by an awareness of his own mortality, his personal history, a desire to distance himself from the negative behavior of Hutu like himself, and a strong identification with the Tutsi refugees under his protection.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Singer (1972: 241) notes that this is the more moderate of the two principles he sets out; the stronger version “required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance.” Though Singer (1972: 241) believes the strong version of the principle to be correct, he notes that to adopt it would likely mean “that one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee.” In thinking through the implications of the more moderate principle that I quote, Singer (1972: 241) suggests that “it may not follow that we ought to reduce ourselves to the level of marginal utility, for one might hold that to reduce oneself and one’s family to this level is to cause something significantly bad to happen.”

  2. 2.

    A powerful example from the world of professional athletics is Joe Delaney, a Pro Bowl running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, who attempted to rescue three drowning boys in a Monroe, Louisiana park on June 29, 1983. Though he had never learned to swim, Delaney succeeded in saving one of the boys before drowning in an attempt to save the two others. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Ronald Reagan (cf. Reilly 2003). Of course, in his more moderate discussion of the duty an individual should feel when he walks past the pond, Singer does not require that anyone risk his own life by jumping into the water to save the children.

  3. 3.

    On the other hand, the strictness of Singer’s principles might well render them impossible and thereby actually make it less likely that people will act on behalf of those who are suffering around the world. In this way, Singer’s principles might well be compared with the claims about morality made by Kant (1993: 11) in the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals:

    there are many persons who are so sympathetically constituted that, without any further motive of vanity or self-interest, they find an inner pleasure in spreading joy around them and can rejoice in the satisfaction of others as their own work. But I maintain that in such a case an action of this kind, however dutiful and amiable it may be, has nevertheless no true moral worth…. Suppose then the mind of this friend of mankind to be clouded over with his own sorrow so that all sympathy with the lot of others is extinguished, and suppose him still to have the power to benefit others in distress, even though he is not touched by their trouble because he is sufficiently absorbed with his own; and now suppose that even though no inclination moves him any longer, he nevertheless tears himself from this deadly insensibility and performs the action without any inclination at all, but solely from duty – then for the first time his action has genuine moral worth.

    This position, that one can behave morally only in response to duty, seems to excuse a lack of action by either rendering morality impossible or making it largely a matter of robotic compulsion rather than human agency.

  4. 4.

    Because of a relatively high rate of intermarriage – and because of the dubious origins of the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi in the first place – most scholars conclude that the difference between the groups is an imagined one. It is variously described as largely a class differentiation, with wealthy Tutsi kings and nobles originally ruling the poorer Hutu; a phony racial categorization cooked up by Belgian colonists eager to see a generally taller and lighter-skinned group of Tutsi as more European than the shorter, darker Hutu; a myth about native origins, with native Hutu farmers and invading Tutsi herders migrating from the north; or all three in some combination (cf. Gourevitch 1998: 50–58; Mamdani and Mahmood 2002: 41–75; Rusesabagina 2006: 16–18). Whatever the actual origin of the distinction, it became a powerfully entrenched one in the early part of the twentieth century, when the Belgians issued identification cards and assigned privileges based on group affiliation; the minority Tutsi were put in charge of the majority Hutu and were instructed to use their power to ensure the profitability of the colony for the Belgians.

  5. 5.

    In addition, Jean Bethke Elshtain (1992: 212–214) offers five examples of Holocaust rescuers that, like Geras’s examples, suggest potential problems with Rorty’s theory about personal identification.

  6. 6.

    This is quite a different question from why he – or anyone – ought to be motivated to act on behalf of others, the point made by Singer (1972). In focusing on why heroes are so motivated rather than on why we all ought to be, my argument attempts to avoid the sense of impossibility that plagues Singer’s account.

  7. 7.

    The gacaca court system involves the community in settling disputes, most often on civil matters like competing property claims. Often translated as “justice on the grass,” it places a premium on honesty and, ultimately, seeks reconciliation. As Rusesabagina (2006: 9) explains, “The elders would invite the village to come sit under the shade of a tree and hear the opposing sides tell their stories.... After the two enemies had finished speaking, the elders would give their opinions, one by one, on what should be done to remedy the problem.... Then came the most important part of justice on the grass: the two aggrieved men were required to share a gourd of banana beer as a sign of renewed friendship.” There have been recent attempts at applying the gacaca system to some of the crimes committed during the genocide, largely in an attempt to assist the overwhelmed criminal justice system but also to promote some sort of reconciliation within communities (cf., Temple-Raston 2005). Interestingly, Gary Herbert (2008) points out the connection between the gacaca courts and those of the Homeric Greeks: “For them, it was Themis, an Olympian deity, who convened and dissolved any judicial assembly. Themis represented, in effect, the sense of right that governed and guided all the sacred assemblies of men that meet to pass judgment.” A good example can be found in the description of a scene on the shield of Achilles in the Iliad:

    A crowd, then, in a market place, and there/two men at odds over satisfaction owed/for a murder done: one claimed that all was paid,/and publicly declared it; his opponent/turned the reparation down, and both/demanded a verdict from an arbiter,/as people clamored in support of each,/and criers restrained the crowd. The town elders/sat in a ring, on chairs of polished stone,/the staves of clarion criers in their hands,/with which they sprang up, each to speak in turn,/and in the middle were two golden measures/to be awarded him whose argument/would be the most straightforward” (Homer 1974: 451).

    For Herbert (2008), this Homeric assembly – and the gacaca court system – accords with “a tribal notion of justice, one that leads to and supports class and ethnic identity and warfare.... Presumably, what Rusesabagina learned from his father was the justice of his clan or tribe, something akin to Themis.” To make this case, Herbert (2008) juxtaposes Themis with Dike, which he notes “signifies...what is right ‘by nature,’ i.e. not tribally, not ethnically, not for one class against another. Dike would represent a step toward universal justice and human rights.” I am not convinced, however, that Rwanda’s gacaca system is quite so focused on tribal or ethnic identity. While the courts of his father’s time were surely focused on restoring harmony between feuding clan members, it seems clear that for Rusesabagina, and for proponents of the contemporary gacaca courts, this traditional mediation technique can be applied even to much more serious interethnic strife by extending the core principle of reconciliation beyond ethnic boundaries.

  8. 8.

    In Rwanda, group affiliation passes to children through the father, particularly fortuitous for Rusesabagina (whose father was Hutu and thus whose children were Hutu, despite his mother and his wife both being Tutsi). Ultimately, this piece of good luck played a relatively large role in determining whether Rusesabagina, his family, and all of the Tutsi refugees under his protection would live or die, as a hotel manager with a Tutsi father and Hutu mother would likely not have survived even his first encounter with the interahamwe.

  9. 9.

    The influence of Rusesabagina’s father is very much in line with the existing literature on rescuers, which has been almost exclusively limited to those who acted on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust. Summarizing several of the most prominent studies, David P. Gushee (2003: 120) notes that “London concluded that rescuers identified themselves intensely with a parent who ‘tended to be a very strong moralist – not necessarily religious, but holding very firm opinions on moral issues and serving as a model of moral conduct.’ Coopersmith reaffirmed this finding, emphasizing that these parents both preached and practiced ‘ethical, altruistic, and moral values’ and that rescuers later consciously imitated a specific role model. The same was true in Huneke’s sample; he emphasized the significance of moral instruction in the home, whether rooted in the Bible, folk wisdom, or other sources. In Eva Fogelman’s sample of rescuers, a parent who behaved altruistically appeared almost universally.”

  10. 10.

    Oliner and Oliner (1988: 164) note that, in their sample of Holocaust rescuers, nonrescuers, and bystanders, “There is no significant difference between rescuers and nonrescuers with respect to parental equity values; approximately 45% of rescuers, nonrescuers, and bystanders mentioned them. But words and phrases characterizing care – the need to be helpful, hospitable, concerned, and loving – were voiced significantly more often by rescuers as they recalled the values they learned from their parents or other most influential person (44% of rescuers, 25% of nonrescuers, and 21% of bystanders).”

  11. 11.

    Oliner and Oliner (1988: 174) argue that “What distinguished rescuers from nonrescuers was their tendency to be moved by pain. Sadness and helplessness aroused their empathy. More frequently than others, rescuers were likely to say ‘I can’t feel good if others around me are sad,’ ‘Seeing people cry upsets me,’ ‘I get very upset when I see an animal in pain,’ ‘It upsets me to see helpless people,’ and ‘I get angry when I see someone hurt.’” It is not entirely clear whether these feelings stem from sympathy with the other or from guilt associated with not being in pain oneself; most likely, the combination of these feelings share the responsibility for the behavior of rescuers. In the case of Carl Wilkens, described above, the guilt or shame arising from his sense of safety expressed itself not only as empathy but also as anger toward others in similar positions of security:

    They gave a 72-hour window for all the foreigners to leave. I sat on the front porch of our house there, and I watched the buses come down the road from the city and go up the road out towards the airport, and the trucks and the cars [leaving]. This sadness just kind of came over me, because now, if people in Rwanda ever needed help…now was the time; and everybody’s leaving…. This thing didn’t end in a couple of days like we thought it [would]; it didn’t end in a week or two like we thought it would. Somebody’s going to do something. By the time the genocide was over, I was so angry at America—America the beautiful, America the brave (Barker 2004a).

  12. 12.

    Among the first casualties of the genocide in Kigali were Tutsi politicians and prominent moderate Hutu, such as Rusesabagina, who were not outspoken members of Hutu Power.

  13. 13.

    Consider, for example, the case of Augustin Misago, the Bishop of Gikongoro, who failed to protect 82 Tutsi schoolchildren during the genocide. When Gourevitch (1998: 138) asks him about the fate of those children, he suggests that he actually worked to increase their police protection but “The unfortunate thing was that among those policemen there were some accomplices of the interahamwe. I couldn’t have known that.” In further contrasting Misago with Rusesabagina, Gourevitch (1998: 139) presses the bishop about the influence he might have had on the killers and Misago tries to exonerate himself and the many other clergy who did not protect people from the violence: “When men become like devils, and you don’t have an army, what can you do? All paths were dangerous. So how could I influence? Even the Church – we are not like extraterrestrials who can foresee things. We could have been victims of a lack of information. When one is poorly informed, one hesitates to take a position.” Gourevitch (1998: 139) concludes his treatment of Misago by articulating his profound doubt about the position that the bishop hopes to adopt with regard to this particular massacre, namely, that “he had been a profoundly ignorant man who was duped by demons.”

  14. 14.

    One such example is of Captain Diagne Mbaye, a Senegalese peacekeeper with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR), who was killed by mortar fragments fired by the Rwandan Patriotic Front at an interahamwe roadblock (cf. Barker 2004b; Dallaire 2005: 400; Peterson 1994: 7). While not nearly as well-known as Rusesabagina’s story, Mbaye was briefly featured in the 2004 PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Ghosts of Rwanda,” where he was remembered for rescuing the two children of slain Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. Greg Barker (2004b), the documentary’s producer, writes that “On one occasion he found a group of 25 Tutsis hiding in a house in Nyamirambo, a Kigali neighborhood that was particularly dangerous. Capt. Mbaye ferried the Tutsis to the UN headquarters in groups of five – on each trip passing through 23 militia checkpoints with a Jeep-load of Tutsis.” UNAMIR commanding officer Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire (2005: 400) wrote that Mbaye “had personally saved the lives of dozens upon dozens of Rwandans. Braving direct and indirect fire, mines, mobs, disease and any number of other threats, he eagerly accepted any mission that would save lives.”

  15. 15.

    On this point, Rorty (1989: 196) is particularly eloquent and it is useful to quote him at some length:

    The right way to take the slogan ‘We have obligations to human beings simply as such’ is as a means of reminding ourselves to keep trying to expand our sense of ‘us’ as far as we can. That slogan urges us to extrapolate further in the direction set by certain events in the past – the inclusion among ‘us’ of the family in the next cave, then of the tribe across the river, then of the tribal confederation beyond the mountains, then of the unbelievers beyond the seas (and, perhaps last of all, of the menials who, all this time, have been doing our dirty work). This is a process which we should try to keep going. We should stay on the lookout for marginalized people – people who we still instinctively think of as ‘they’ rather than ‘us.’ We should try to notice our similarities with them. The right way to construe the slogan is as urging us to create a more expansive sense of solidarity than we presently have.


  1. Barker, Greg. 2004a. “Interview: Carl Wilkens” on the Public Broadcasting Service FRONTLINE website, “Ghosts of Rwanda” (April 1). Accessed at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/interviews/wilkens.html

  2. Barker, Greg. 2004b. “The Man Everyone Remembers” on the Public Broadcasting Service “Frontline” website, “Ghosts of Rwanda” (April 1). Accessed at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ghosts/video/mbaye.html.

  3. Dallaire Roméo, Beardsley Brent (2005) Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Carroll & Graf, New York

    Google Scholar 

  4. Elshtain Jean Bethke (1992) “Don’t Be Cruel: Reflections on Rortyian Liberalism”. In: ConwayDaniel W., SeeryJohn E. (eds) The Politics of Irony: Essays in Self-Betrayal. St. Martin’s, New York

    Google Scholar 

  5. Geras Norman (1995) Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty. Verso, New York

    Google Scholar 

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

  7. Gushee David P. (2003) Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation. Paragon House, St. Paul

    Google Scholar 

  8. Herbert, Gary. 2008. E-mail message to Author. (June 4).

  9. Homer. 1974. The Iliad trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Anchor Books).

  10. Kant Immanuel (1993) Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals trans. James W. Ellington. Hackett, Indianapolis

    Google Scholar 

  11. Mamdani Mahmood (2002) When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton University Press, Princeton

    Google Scholar 

  12. Oliner Samuel P., Oliner Pearl M (1988) The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  13. Peterson, Scott. 1994. “In Rwanda, One UN Peacekeeper Did His Best to Make a Difference,” 86 Christian Science Monitor 132 (June 2).

  14. Reilly, Rick. 2003. “No Ordinary Joe,” Sports Illustrated (July 7). Accessed at: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/inside_game/rick_reilly/news/2003/07/01/reilly0707/

  15. Rorty Richard (1989) Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  16. Rorty Richard (1998) Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  17. Rusesabagina, Paul. 2005. Conversation with Author (April 19–20).

  18. Rusesabagina Paul (2006) An Ordinary Man with Tom Zoellner. Viking Penguin, New York

    Google Scholar 

  19. Schein Seth L. (1984) The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad. University of California, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  20. Singer, Peter. 1972. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” 1 Philosophy and Public Affairs 3 (Spring).

  21. Temple-Raston Dina (2005) Justice on the Grass: Three Rwandan Journalists, Their Trial for War Crimes, and a Nation’s Quest for Redemption. Free Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This paper was drafted while I was the Irmgard Coninx Foundation research fellow at the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful to Ingo and Sabine Richter. For their willingness to participate in a great many discussions about heroism, thanks are also due to Melinda Adams, Chris Blake, Jean Cahan, Bill Curtis, Peter Euben, Elizabeth Kiss, Howard Lubert, Dennis Rasmussen, John Sherpereel, Valerie Sulfaro, Michael Tofias, and Margaret Williams. Finally, comments on earlier drafts improved this paper immeasurably; for their time, interest, and careful attention, special thanks is owed to Sara Lunsford and to the journal editor, Gary Herbert.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ari Kohen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Kohen, A. A Case of Moral Heroism: Sympathy, Personal Identification, and Mortality in Rwanda. Hum Rights Rev 11, 65–82 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12142-008-0102-2

Download citation


  • Heroism
  • Sympathy
  • Rwanda
  • Richard Rorty
  • Paul Rusesabagina
  • Peter Singer