On the explicability of evil

In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does ...

Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images
Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images

In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does not mean that it cannot be explained -- both as an act of state policy on the part of the Bosnian Serb leadership and as a rational decision on the part of Ratko Mladic, the man who ultimately determined the fate of the people of Srebrenica.

The Srebrenica massacre belongs to a special category of war crimes so monstrous that it defies the imagination of decent people. It has been described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Whatever you want to call it, there is no denying that it was the most heinous crime of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995, the worst massacre to occur on European soil since the end of World War II. This is why I have paid so much attention to the Srebrenica events in this blog, as a particularly horrifying example of the evil that human beings still inflict on each other.

In the case of former United Nations "safe area," the evil was compounded by the fact that it occurred a short plane ride away from the great European capitals, at the end of the 20th century, on the continent that created the slogan "Never Again." Confronted with the difficulty of understanding evil on this scale, we are tempted to describe it as "incomprehensible," and label the perpetrators as "mad men." It is an easy way out that avoids having to think about cause and effect, and the way people actually take fateful decisions.

In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does not mean that it cannot be explained — both as an act of state policy on the part of the Bosnian Serb leadership and as a rational decision on the part of Ratko Mladic, the man who ultimately determined the fate of the people of Srebrenica.

The Srebrenica massacre belongs to a special category of war crimes so monstrous that it defies the imagination of decent people. It has been described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Whatever you want to call it, there is no denying that it was the most heinous crime of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995, the worst massacre to occur on European soil since the end of World War II. This is why I have paid so much attention to the Srebrenica events in this blog, as a particularly horrifying example of the evil that human beings still inflict on each other.

In the case of former United Nations "safe area," the evil was compounded by the fact that it occurred a short plane ride away from the great European capitals, at the end of the 20th century, on the continent that created the slogan "Never Again." Confronted with the difficulty of understanding evil on this scale, we are tempted to describe it as "incomprehensible," and label the perpetrators as "mad men." It is an easy way out that avoids having to think about cause and effect, and the way people actually take fateful decisions.

Having studied Mladic’s career and actions in the Bosnia war, and observed him in court in The Hague, I do not believe that he can be simply dismissed as a crazy psychopath. His decisions reflect his understanding of his own interests and the interests of his people. From his point of view, they were rational decisions based on a hard-headed, if twisted, calculation of the advantages and disadvantages of various possible courses of action. In this sense, the evil is explicable.

While some mystery remains about precisely when and how Mladic decided to kill all military-age Muslim males from Srebrenica, we already possess a mountain of evidence pointing to the centrality of his role. War crimes investigators from around the world investigated the case for over a decade while he was on the run. Much of the evidence they accumulated has already been produced in three major trials of his closest associates. The judges remain focused on the question of Mladic’s guilt or innocence, but for ordinary courtroom observers, the legal issues have been superseded by a larger historical question. Why?

In order to answer this question, it helps to break down Mladic’s motivations and decision — making processes into several different stages. I would welcome your suggestions for points you would like to clarify, but these were the biggest mysteries for me when I began my inquiry:

  • In official censuses and questionnaires during the Tito period, Mladic described himself not as a Serb but as a "Yugoslav." How did a professional Yugoslav military officer indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity" turn into an uncompromising Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his fellow "South Slavs"?
  • How did Mladic justify his actions to himself? How did the deportation of an entire population, and the murder of thousands of Muslim men, fit into his overall strategy as a military commander in the final months of the Bosnia war?
  • Once Mladic had committed himself to waging war against the enemies of Republika Srpska, why did he resort to methods that meet the definition of "crimes against humanity," according to the Geneva conventions and other generally accepted norms of international jurisprudence? Was he unable to achieve his goals through more "civilized" methods?
  • Why did he think that he could get away with it?

I will attempt to answer these questions one by one over the coming days, as I wrap up my present inquiry into the "origins 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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