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His travels in Rwanda began in 1995 almost a year after the Hutu led government rallied its supporters and carried out the organized slaughter of the Tutsi minority. Much of the book tells the chilling stories of indidivual survivors as well as those who participated in the massacre. It is these stories that give the book much of its power because, much like Daniel Goldhagen's book "Hitler's Willing Executioners" they demonstrate how normal people can become tools of a corrupt and authoritarian regime that uses race as a means to control its people.
In explaining the causes of one of the worst cases of "democide" in the 20th century, Gourevitch exposes the complicity of the US, UN, and the French. But the real blame rests in the history of 20th century European imperialism. Gourevitch goes far back in the history of Rwanda to explain how the Hutus and Tutsis lived in peaceful coexistence until the Belgians, relying on outdated theories of eugenics, segregated the two tribes and favored the "regal" looking Tutsis over the Hutus. Racial identity cards and inequitable opportunities for education and employment that favored the Tutsi minority led to tensions that exploded after Rwanda gained independence in the 1950s. Blame for the resulting series of Tutsi massacres falls on those who established the system and perpetuated the myth of racial differences.
This book will leave you with doubts about the capability of the international community to prevent similar atrocities in the future as well as the sincerity of governments that, while professing the importance of human rights, allow hundreds of thousands to die before responding with too little, too late.
But this really isn't about Rosenzweig's pursuit of Koehler. There wasn't much of a pursuit. They found him living in Benicia, California and picked him up when he arrived at Penn Station in New York on July 30, 1997, "a pathetic old man" 67-years-old. A photo taken that day makes him look like a rummy with a bad dye job.
So what's this book about, and why is it considered so good that Scott Turow and Elmore Leonard, among others, have touted it? Quite simply this is a textbook example of how to write a modest crime story with an underlying emphasis on our criminal justice system, how it works, and how it fails. Besides the two chief characters in the book, Koehler and Rosenzweig, there is a revealing portrait of defense attorney, "Don't Worry Murray" Murray Richman, a man who's made a nice living defending some of New York City's sleazier crooks. The aptly named Richman believes that there's a difference between the authorities and gangsters: "the gangsters are more compassionate." (p. 128) He adds (p. 132): "If I defended only innocent people, I'd go hungry." He says he believes in the system (which is one of the reasons he defends the accused), but his bottom line philosophy is "The truth is there is no truth." (p. 132).
There's a certain nostalgic gangster color to the characters in this book. Koehler is a particularly good study, a guy who first killed when he was fifteen years old, but a guy who somehow while on the lam for twenty-seven years, managed to become so beloved that he was thought of by some of the people in Benicia, California as "their unofficial mayor" and they supported him with t-shirts reading "free New York Frankie." (p. 161)
Rosenzweig is the hero, a guy who never gives up, an honest cop who works methodically, dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's until he gets his man, a born bloodhound, and the kind of guy we ought to have more of in law enforcement.
Much of this true crime story first appeared in The New Yorker where Gourevitch's crisp, clean prose was much ballyhooed. This book expands on what I read there. It's a attractive book and a quick read.