03/07/2012 08:30 am ET Updated May 07, 2012

Class War in the USA

So far the biggest loser in the Republican primary campaign has been the English language. One example is the hyperbolic use of the term 'class war.' When someone dares to question the distribution of power, opportunity and wealth in the United States, they are labelled a dangerous class warrior, beneath contempt, and as un-American as it is possible to be.

I had the Republican candidates in mind last week in Rwanda, at a project helping survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide rebuild their lives. The blood red earth of Africa beneath my feet, and a breathtaking view of surrounding hills before me, I listened to a man I will call Jean de Dieu (John of God, a common Rwandan name) to preserve his identity.

Jean de Dieu is twenty-eight years old, meaning he was ten when the genocide decimated Rwanda. He teaches the women at the project who missed out on education in the aftermath of the genocide because schools had been destroyed and 80% of teachers had been killed or had fled.

Jean de Dieu's father was a lawyer, and a member of the minority ethnic group, the Tutsi. On April 6th the extremist Hutu militia, the Interahamwe, launched one hundred days of highly organized, pre-planned slaughter. Shortly after the killing began, Jean de Dieu's father's driver appeared at their home. But instead of preparing the vehicle and opening the car door for his boss, as usual, the driver killed him.

At another worthy project I met Patricia (not her name), a tall, slender beauty with a shy smile. Before the genocide she and her husband ran a shop in their village. Like many small business people, they were the first to die. Patricia was gang-raped as her husband was butchered on the ground beside her.

Moses (not his name), who drove me from one project to the next during my time in Rwanda, told me he is unable to visit his home town. He pointed at the map, shaking his head. "That's where we had our farm," he said. His father and mother were killed by their farm laborers soon after the genocide began. Although he and his surviving sisters have legal title to the farm, he is unable to get rent from the people now occupying it, because they would kill him if he came near.

We in the West have chosen to define the Rwandan genocide as "ancient ethnic hatreds," another way of saying "there was nothing we could be expected to do about it." It allows us to be morally ambiguous.

Yet the roots of the genocide owe more to a class system invented by Belgian colonialists than to ethnicity, among other contributory factors. The same was true in Bosnia, where the more educated Muslims lived in cities like Sarajevo. It is said that the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadžić, never recovered from being laughed at when he came to Sarajevo for the first time as a young man, wearing his felt farmer's boots. He is now at the International Criminal Court, charged with genocide. Since the Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia are ethnically the same, the West tried to frame Bosnian as a religious conflict. However, politicians like Slobodan Milosevic and Karadžić used sectarian differences to stir up their power bases: social class had a more important role than we grasped.

Karadžić followed in the footsteps of class warriors like Pol Pot of Cambodia, who targeted people with soft hands, glasses, books or typewriters. Consequently the Khmer Rouge is thought to have killed three million Cambodians out of a population of seven million. Stalin deliberately starved millions of the Kulaks, Ukraine's landowning peasants, for the same reason: he did not want independent thinkers or business-minded people challenging his grip on power. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn believed as many as 60 million Kulaks died as a consequence of Stalin's policies.

Mao's Cultural Revolution destroyed the lives of tens of millions of middle class and educated Chinese, forcing them to work in fields for years, if they were lucky to escape death at the hands of crowds of hysterical class warrior Red Guards. Estimates range from two million to thirty million victims of Mao's class hatred.

We hear less of 'reverse' class warriors like Franco of Spain and Pinochet of Chile, who killed or oppressed their social inferiors to prevent the uppity landless masses demanding a greater share of their nation's wealth and opportunities. But class warfare is at the heart of both dictators' world view.

Given this blood-soaked summary of twentieth century class warfare, politicians in the USA should be more careful in their use of language. When Americans suggest the wealthiest members of society might pay a little more tax, they are not unleashing Mao's Red Guards, or Rwanda's Interahamwe. They are debating the relative costs we should all bear for being privileged enough to live in what is still an incredibly prosperous, healthy, safe democracy.

As they said during the Second World War, careless talk costs lives. Provoking hysteria about the threat posed by raising income tax, or, for that matter, illegal immigrants or gay marriage, will have consequences. It also insults the intelligence of American voters. If politicians are forever crying wolf, why should we believe them when something really serious happens? Dial it down, please, guys.