Conversations With a Mass Murderer

By Belinda Cooper
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide
By Jessica Stern
Where do malevolent leaders come from? What drives them, and why do people follow them? The rise of populist demagogues around the world, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to our own Donald Trump, has given these perennial questions new salience. In “My War Criminal: Personal Encounters With an Architect of Genocide,” the counterterrorism expert Jessica Stern seeks an answer from one of those leaders himself: Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb strongman implicated in atrocities committed during the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Croats and Muslims between 1992 and 1995, including the deadly four-year siege of Sarajevo and the murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1995, Karadzic, a trained physician, changed his name and, disguised as a practitioner of alternative medicine, managed to evade capture for over a decade. In 2008, he was finally arrested in Belgrade, Serbia, and sent to The Hague to stand trial before the ICTY, which in 2016 convicted him of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide (his conviction was recently confirmed on appeal).
Stern, who has made a practice of speaking with terrorists of various stripes in order to understand their motivations, sought and — exceptionally, as such requests are usually denied — received permission to visit Karadzic from 2014 to 2016 in his jail in The Hague. In “My War Criminal,” she interweaves excerpts from their conversations with explanations of the history of the Bosnian war and reflections on the influences that shaped Karadzic. As the title of the book suggests, Stern also sees herself as part of the narrative, frequently calling attention to her own responses to “her” war criminal’s statements and behavior.
Understandably skeptical of Karadzic’s self-serving answers to probing questions, but determined to make a fair attempt to understand him, Stern goes in search of his family members, friends and former colleagues. From her interviews, and from her investigations into Serbian history and culture, she is surprised to find some truth in Karadzic’s claims. His insistence that Serbs were merely defending themselves against external threats, she observes, is rooted in memories of actual “historical wounds” that continue to exert a powerful influence. Karadzic writes poetry, and Stern explores the Serbian tradition of epic poetry and music that glorifies historical victimhood and martyrdom, and formed a backdrop to his youth.
Stern quotes extensively from the large body of literature on the former Yugoslavia, and also explores such related topics as the legal definition of genocide, the international law on secession, the complexities of globalization and the “new man” that Communism hoped to create. These citations and digressions, often in lengthy footnotes, can lend the book the feel of a graduate school thesis, and some errors and false impressions creep in: a misleading suggestion that the ICTY one-sidedly prosecuted only Serbs (it did not); the mistaken characterization of a Serbian case against Croatia at the International Court of Justice as involving World War II rather than the more recent conflicts; the incorrect claim that the indictments of Karadzic and his notorious general Ratko Mladic were the first to be handed down by the ICTY. In an effort to be evenhanded and to consider all sides in the conflict (and perhaps because of her own expertise), Stern devotes more space than may be warranted to the question of the influence of fundamentalist jihadis on the (traditionally quite secular) Bosnian Muslim population. Despite interventions during the war by several Muslim countries, she rightly concludes, the fears raised by Serbian propaganda regarding an Islamic fundamentalist takeover were considerably overblown.
Stern highlights a variety of additional characteristics that allowed Karadzic to tap into his compatriots’ worst instincts: extreme nationalism, narcissism with an accompanying savior complex, personal charisma, flexible ideology, a desire for power, the ability to read a crowd and exploit its fears of change and loss of status. She draws explicit, if somewhat superficial, connections to President Trump’s ability to play upon the concerns and prejudices of many Americans. Perhaps the most revealing moment in the book is Karadzic’s gleeful response to Trump’s electoral victory, underscoring a palpable kinship between the two men. “I knew Trump would win,” Karadzic crowed. “I predicted it. I performed a kind of divination.” Karadzic, Stern writes, “had a better handle on what motivated Trump’s supporters than many American pollsters and experts prior to the election.”
Yet most of the insights Stern gleans from the information she collects are more banal than illuminating. Some examples: “Nationalism … starts wars”; ”one pathway to hatred is when a dominant ethnic group fears losing its status and privileges”; “stoking fear is a powerful weapon”; “fear and hatred, properly amplified, can lead to war”; “hate speech is effective at increasing prejudice.” Surely we know by now that demagogues exploit historical grievances and popular fears, often nationalist or racist in substance, to turn populations against one another.
Nor do we gain many new insights from Stern’s reports of her exchanges with Karadzic, which provide little sense of the intelligent, charismatic, yet amoral personality who was able to instigate mass atrocities. Perhaps this is inevitable: Now that he is a detainee, far from the context that made his rise possible, Karadzic’s power is gone. Yet Stern recounts feeling manipulated and even threatened at times by her subject, as when he unexpectedly calls her (at the cell number she herself gave him) to provide her with additional information; she wonders if his intent was “to show me that he (or his minions) can find me, wherever I am.” She even describes their interaction as “two animals fighting for our lives.” But she fails to convey the danger convincingly. Instead, Karadzic comes across as an unrepentant elderly man eager to defend his legacy to a curious interlocutor.
What is more, Stern’s interjections can seem oddly self-involved: During a visit in May of 2015, for example, she notes that Karadzic appears exhausted and muses that “he must have been so tired of transforming himself into the heroic person he wanted me to see.” Yet at the time Karadzic, who had defended himself at his ICTY trial, was still submitting motions to the court, and it is certainly equally possible that this, and the strain of detention, was the source of his fatigue.
Stern presents Karadzic not as a psychopath, but as a human being turned malevolent through context, with traits shared by other leaders of his type, including our own president. But these characteristics have already been mapped many times. We are well aware of the danger of narcissistic, power-hungry leaders and the circumstances in which they can lead nations to commit terrible acts.
What we need to know is how to combat these tendencies before they become deadly — whether through education, strong institutions, early warning systems or other means. The genesis of terrorism may differ from that of nationalist demagogues. Still, with her understanding of terrorists and her experience in countering them, Stern might have provided us with some tools to inoculate populations against the kinds of fears and hatreds that can lead to genocide. But if “My War Criminal” accurately describes the problem, it brings us no closer to a solution.
This article originally appeared at The New York Times.