To explain evil is not to justify it

My post entitled "In Defense of the Serbs" has drawn a lot of debate and controversy, and has been widely picked up by the press in both Bosnia and Serbia. Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing  champions for both sides. If you insist that the fault lies exclusively on ...

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

My post entitled "In Defense of the Serbs" has drawn a lot of debate and controversy, and has been widely picked up by the press in both Bosnia and Serbia. Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing  champions for both sides. If you insist that the fault lies exclusively on one side, then clearly you will be offended by someone who tries to understand multiple points of view.

Bosniak spokesmen have accused me of "legitimizing genocide" by daring to suggest that the international community failed to pay sufficient attention to the grievances of the two-million strong Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia. Apologists for the other side view my explanation of the "Serb point of view" as an inadequate attempt to demonstrate my impartiality following a long chain of posts detailing atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic.

My post entitled "In Defense of the Serbs" has drawn a lot of debate and controversy, and has been widely picked up by the press in both Bosnia and Serbia. Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing  champions for both sides. If you insist that the fault lies exclusively on one side, then clearly you will be offended by someone who tries to understand multiple points of view.

Bosniak spokesmen have accused me of "legitimizing genocide" by daring to suggest that the international community failed to pay sufficient attention to the grievances of the two-million strong Serb minority in Croatia and Bosnia. Apologists for the other side view my explanation of the "Serb point of view" as an inadequate attempt to demonstrate my impartiality following a long chain of posts detailing atrocities committed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic.

I am struck by the ad hominem nature of many of these attacks. If Michael Dobbs writes something with which I disagree, he is by definition an idiot (a "random Joe Bloggs" in the words of one critic) who lacks the necessary expertise to be taken seriously on Balkan matters. I find it pointless and demeaning to respond to such criticism, other than to say that I have been studying the region in one way or the other for a good deal longer than many of these self-appointed "experts."

Also worth noting are the attempts by some of the partisans to close off reasoned debate as somehow illegitimate.  It is not enough to say that someone who disagrees with you is wrong in his facts or mistaken in his interpretation.  He must be fired this instant!  His blog must be shut down!  To say that the other side also has some legitimate arguments is to insult the victims of genocide!  Forgive me for disagreeing, but I do not think this is the way to encourage much-needed political reconciliation in this part of the world.

I am troubled by the way advocates for different Balkan nationalities (many of them based outside the former Yugoslavia, by the way) refuse to concede anything at all to the other side. Everything is black or white: there is no room for grey. If there is one thing I have learned as a foreign correspondent-turned-historian, it is that real life is a good deal more complicated than the propagandists on either side are willing to admit. Indeed, it is the complexities, contradictions, and ambiguities that make the former Yugoslavia so interesting. 

This is not to argue, of course, that pure, unadulterated evil does not exist. (See the title of this blog.) Mladic’s decision to execute some 7,000 Muslim men and boys captured by Serbian forces following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 is merely one example of an evil act for which there can be no justification. (I put this in italics for the benefit of those who accuse me of "justifying" genocide or mass atrocity.) The original crime was compounded by a cover-up at the highest levels of the Bosnian Serb leadership which, unfortunately, continues to this very day in a somewhat different form.

To explain evil is not to justify it. Over the next few weeks, I am planning a series of posts that will try to describe what was going on in Mladic’s head as he implemented his murderous campaign against the Muslims of Srebrenica. In order to do this, I must at least attempt to understand his motivations, as well as the point of view of the people who carried out his orders. The great Holocaust historian Hannah Arendt talked about the "banality of evil," referring to the Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann. In the case of Mladic, a much more charismatic personality than Eichmann, I would amend that slightly. What we are dealing with here is not "the banality of evil," but the "explicability of evil."

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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