Understanding evil

The Baltimore Sun

You want to understand the evil of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who was arrested last week for war crimes committed in the Balkans during the early 1990s? Then read the obituary that has just appeared of Dinko Sakic, who was convicted of war crimes in the Balkans during the Holocaust. And consider, too, the behaviors, beliefs and psychologies of mass murderers in other places, both leaders and followers, who were no less monstrous than they were.

Almost invariably, this rogue's gallery of killers remained unrepentant about what they did, believing to the end in the justice of their actions and their causes. To us, they're obviously evil. To almost all of them, they were utterly good. Somewhere in that contradiction lies the psychological secret of the problem of evil.

Mr. Karadzic was centrally responsible for a campaign that resulted in the murder of perhaps 200,000 civilian Bosnian Muslims and Croats, the expulsion of some 1.5 million others and the rape of about 20,000 women. He led that campaign in the name of "ethnic cleansing." His goal was the creation of a separate Serb republic in Bosnia. And the rationale he used, and may well have believed, was that he was protecting the historical and geographic rights of a vulnerable and victimized group. Moreover, he argued, he was doing the local non-Serbs a favor by bringing them together with their ethnic brethren elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Karadzic went into hiding after the 1995 Dayton agreements. He was finally arrested in Belgrade last week and is slated to be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. He had changed his name but was living publicly with a new face, as a pony-tailed and bearded alternative-medicine advocate who made television appearances. A Serbian daily said he had become a "lovable guru."

By all accounts, Mr. Karadzic continued to believe in the justice of his actions and his cause. He reportedly strummed a guitar regularly in a Belgrade caf?, singing maudlin songs he wrote about Serbian history, victimization and nationalism, all the while facing a photo hanging on the caf? wall of his former, undisguised self.

How could a psychiatrist, poet and self-styled intellectual have become such a monster? And how, in his recent years on the lam, could he have struck those who knew him but not his past as an affable and idealistic guy who wanted to help people and improve his Web site?

We'll never be able to answer these questions fully, but we can get a hint of the answers by reading the obituary, which appeared in The New York Times the day after Mr. Karadzic was arrested, of Dinko Sakic.

During the Holocaust, Mr. Sakic ran the most terrible concentration camp in Croatia, then a puppet ally of Nazi Germany. In that camp, Mr. Sakic oversaw the murders, in the name of the Croatian Ustashe regime, of many tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies - by some estimates, as many as several hundred thousand. The camp was called Jasenovac. Its brutality, under Mr. Sakic's leadership, shocked even German Nazi officials who visited it, provoking them to compare it to Dante's hell. Mr. Sakic's staff designed a special knife to slit throats. Mr. Sakic himself tortured inmates with a blowtorch and shot several for smiling. One survivor of the camp remembered watching Mr. Sakic oversee the execution of hundreds of Jewish women and children.

After World War II, Mr. Sakic escaped to Argentina, where he lived openly under his own name, operated a textile business and was active in the local Croatian community. Among other acts demonstrating his lack of regret for his former actions, he ran a "rest camp" for Croatian Fascists in Paraguay. When Croatian President Franjo Tudjman visited Argentina in 1994, Mr. Sakic told a Croatian magazine, "I'd do it all again." He said he wished more Serbs had died at Jasenovac, and added, "I sleep like a baby." Eight years ago, having been extradited to Croatia and put on trial, he was found guilty for his wartime actions. Hearing the verdict, he clapped and laughed. Neighbors in Argentina noted that they used to see him mowing his lawn and hugging his wife goodbye.

I have little doubt that when Mr. Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, finally has his say in his trial at The Hague, he'll be equally unrepentant. Like his former ally, Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader who was also put on trial there, he's likely to express absolute belief in the justice of his actions - just as he expressed it to reporters who interviewed him while he was carrying them out.

This should not surprise us. In addition to Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Sakic, other moral monsters have believed utterly in their acts. Hitler, a vegetarian who loved dogs, was an absolute believer in his cause. So were other mass murderers. They had convinced themselves that they were right, just as ordinary members of the German killing groups who murdered Europe's Jews - and, for that matter, many of the members of Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim militias who killed civilians from rival groups - had convinced themselves that they were right.

The problem of evil isn't a philosophical one. It's a psychological one. Human beings, it seems, have a powerful, limitless and unshakable capacity to convince themselves of the justice of anything they do.

This won't help us understand fully Radovan Karadzic's monstrous nature. But it will help us understand that he, in the form of other monsters, will always return. It will help us understand that those monsters, together with the followers they too easily attract, will almost always believe in the justice of their cause.

And it will help us understand that no matter how deeply those leaders and their followers believe in their own rectitude, others must never be taken in by such rationales, must never stop fighting those monsters, and must always bring them to a zone of justice ruled by other values - values that make us more truly human than they will ever be, and without which we cannot be truly human ourselves.

Walter Reich, a psychiatrist, is the Yitzhak Rabin memorial professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University and former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His e-mail is wreich@gwu.edu.

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