Florida Sen. Bill Nelson compared the current political climate in the United States to that of the African country of Rwanda before a genocide that killed about 800,000 people in the 1990s.
Nelson, a Democrat who is facing a stiff re-election challenge from Florida's current Republican governor, Rick Scott, made the comment Sunday while stumping at the Covenant Missionary Baptist Church in Florida City, Florida. Nelson was accompanied at the event by Democratic California Sen. Kamala Harris.
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Nelson described his wife's relationship with Rwanda's current first lady, Jeannette Kagame, and said tribalism is sweeping through US politics to a dangerous degree. He called the story of the Rwandan genocide "instructive" to Americans.
"When a place gets so tribal that the two tribes won't have anything to do with each other ... that jealousy turns into hate," Nelson said. "And we saw what happened to the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda, it turned into a genocide. A million-people hacked to death within a few months. And we have got to watch what's happening here."
The Rwandan genocide is considered one of the worst mass slaughters in human history. An estimated 800,000 civilians, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were killed in three months in 1994. Hutu militias and civilians led the campaign of violence during an incredibly violent civil war that eventually ended when Tutsi forces defeated Hutu extremists.
Historians have tracked the seeds of the tribal violence in Rwanda to generations of antipathy.
Nelson's comments came after a week of political violence. At least 14 pipe bombs were sent to prominent Democratic politicians and CNN, resulting in the arrest of a Florida man who is a fervent supporter of President Donald Trump. On Saturday, the day before Nelson's comments, a man killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The man accused of the shooting, Robert Bowers, made anti-Semitic comments on social media and claimed Jews were helping members of the group of migrants currently heading through Mexico toward the US border.
Nelson campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin said that despite the current events, the senator's speech was nothing more than an illustration of a worst case scenario.
According to McLaughlin, Nelson and his wife often talk about the situation in Rwanda as an instructive lesson on political discourse.
"Sen. Nelson and his wife, Grace, have spoken about events in Rwanda for years, because of his wife's personal relationships there and his own trip to the country. He uses Rwanda as an extreme example of what could happen when a nation becomes totally divided. He wasn't likening the current political climate in America to what was happening right before the Rwandan genocide."