Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Judging  by some brief TV footage, the defendants in the Srebrenica trial looked like pretty simple men who didn't have a clue how they came to be where they were. For a moment I startled myself by feeling sorry for them. Absurd, of course, they are killers of the innocent and unarmed who had been responsible for perhaps the darkest day in Europe since 1945. But my brief sympathy was inspired by the fact that these looked like average people and some very persuasive psyschological experiments - notably the Milgram and the Stanford - have demonstrated that average people will, in the right circumstances, do extraordinarily nasty things. These experiments suggest that you could pluck people from the streets, give them the tools and the indoctrination and most of them would happily engage in another Srebrenica. This anoints the low ranking mass murderer with a kind of terrible innocence; he's just an average joe doing what average joes have alway done, obeying orders. It is a phenomenally depressing view of the human world, but, confronted by the evidence of history, even the most optimistic among us would have trouble arguing that it is not accurate. And now Radovan Karadzic is to go on trial. I know, I know, it is the right thing to do - but how much better it would have been if he had died in a summary battlefield execution and spared us the sight of another face just like our own.


  1. I did an eleven-month combat tour in Vietnam almost forty years ago, and was presented with the opportunity to do something "nasty" to unarmed civilians almost every day. Only a few angry, exhausted fellow soldiers would have known, and most likely would have kept quiet. The fact that I, and hundreds of thousands of other American troops, never succumbed to those opportunities has always made me suspect a flaw in the Stanford and Milgram experiments. Maybe the explanation lies in the population from which test subjects were drawn -- university students.

  2. Um. I dimly recall that the Milgram tests were structured so that plebs came out bad and nice middle class people of Scandinavian descent came out well. Could be wrong. I think there have to be other factors involved. Take Japanese atrocities in China, culminating in the Rape of Nanking in which 100-200,000 were slaughtered depending on whose figures you accept. Racism towards 'the Chinks' and a desire to punish them; reservist soldiers in their 30s/40s unused to military discipline; absence of military police- only 17 in Nanking itself; direct orders to pacify the place; confusion of who was the enemy and who not (Chinese soldiers took off uniforms and merged with civilian population); and a culture that had no respect for those who surrendered. None of which quite explains drunken gang rapes or officers' competitions to lop off heads. I could go on. Booze and a type of ethnic -religious paranoia seem most evident in the Serb case- mere mention of which will result in endless correspondence from the Serbian diaspora that claims they are victims too. There, and I haven't even got on to Ordinary Men. I think its when these atrocities become self-sustaining that is so frightening, rather than instances when, after taking casualties themselves, soldiers go temporarily berzerk. Maybe the group-dynamic takes over?

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  4. It's normal to wonder what we would do if faced with the same situation. Would we be killers? Would we stand up to peer pressure? Would we let ourselves or our families be hurt in order to retain our values?

    Dunno. The Germans are so profoundly guilty these days (at least the ones who are the children of WW II vets, but not the really oldies -- many of whom still revere Hitler -- or the grandkids of the vets, who can't believe all this guilt; it's over already!) that I believe the answer lies there.

    People do what is expedient at the time. Later there is leisure for guilt, repentance, or denial.

    I keep thinking about the Bosnian exterminator going under cover as a guru. Do you think he helped a few people with his massages, his meditative advice? Could it atone at all for murdering thousands?

    Just a question.

  5. Could it atone at all for murdering thousands?


    Just an answer.

  6. I don't think so either, Randy, but here's the kind of thing my philosopher son would ask: What if one of the guys the guru saved with his herbal medicine ultimately came up with the cure for cancer (or global warming, or hunger, or what have you)? If by saving this one person he by extension saved millions...would that atone?

  7. The whole point of a trial and its ritual is to force us to confront "another face just like our own" as well as force the defendant to confront his own guilt. Lest we forget, among other things. The slow pace and grinding boredom of the courtroom have a purpose: to crush the defendant's ego.

    I'm not at all sure any of these gentlemen is normal. They may have started out fairly normal, but now they are not. It would be quite hard to argue that General Ratko Mladic is normal, for example. A brutal psychopath would be nearer the mark.

    Susan's comments about atonement are interesting. I wonder whether someone who's done the kind of things that have led them to be charged with war crimes is capable of empathy and remorse. Some acts may simply destroy an individual's capacity to atone for them.

    [Egregious error in first post corrected.]

  8. I've always suspected there was a link between genocide and Reiki.

  9. AFAIAC, Phillippe Morillon and those running the UNPROFOR ought to be in the dock right alongside him.

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  11. While some mad and deranged people enjoy sadism for what it is in itself, most just murder and kill, I think, for other ends, to which bloodletting is understood as the means.

    They will tell themselves these ends are noble and vital ones, for the achievemtn of which it is necessary to sacrifice the squeamishnesses of morality. I recall that speech Goebbels made about how Germans had to grow hard. Cant think how to track it. Here there is both awareness of the moral ill, and awareness of the fact that one would rather not actually be committing it (hence the lack of pure sadism as such- remember Himmler's revulsion when he visited the death camp) but the recognition that the Germans had to etc for the nobler cause. I think such self-justifications are usually fairly sincere and lie behind much iniquity. Not that this justifies or exonerates anything of course.

    What interests me, and perhaps nobody can know this but Karadzic himself(?), is whether, before he committed these crimes, he genuinely felt he ran the risk of being arrraigned before the International Tribunal. Did he acknowledge the risk but ignore it, or did he feel there was no risk. Presumably he must have thought about this?

    I think this question is relevant if we expect the system of International justice to be something that will actually work to prevent genocide and evil, and not just reactively punish people after the event, sometimes, people who hadn't supposed they would get prosecuted for their evil anyway, in light of the fact that they had the blessing of their own Governments or people for their evil.

    Do the murderers of Darfur think we'll get round to punishing them in the end? Presumably not enough that they're inclined to think twice now.

    This may because this 'we' that the International community claims to be is anything but a united 'we' that has a shared, clear idea of what it's doing in the first place, such that it would either seek to, or be able to, avoid being motivated by specifically partial factional interests and imperatives; interests and imperatives which will consider genocide committed in some areas far more important an issue than in others...for various possibly undeclared reasons....