Janine Di Giovanni has reported from the front lines of both Intifadas, Sarajevo, Chechnya, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and too many others to mention. She has been present at the collapse of civilization in all of these places and has witnessed what came after. She has the moral authority of a witness who has been where few have traveled and recorded the moral horror of war in all its trajectories and squalid, brutal off-shoots.
In Madness Visible: A Memoir of War * she describes the demolition and ethnic cleansing of Kosovo by Serbian forces in 1998 and 1999. She also harkens back to the Bosnian War and the Serbian atrocities at Gorazde and Srebrenica. She talks to everyone from both sides — victims, soldiers, paramilitaries, politicians, bereft families, those who have been tortured and the torturers. Her descriptions of refugees wrings the heart:
“And still, when there are so many, an army of misery, it is easy to dehumanize them. They become cattle sitting on their blankets, waiting for someone to tell them where to go. They have the same faces, the same stories; they come down the road with their lives in two carrier bags. Then you think of the carnage in Bosnia, of the villages and mosques razed, of the streets in Sarajevo wasted in punishment for their stern defiance. … They … were thinking of survival. By the time these people get herded into abandoned schools or warehouses, factories or hospitals, all with the same smell of misery and poor sanitation and dirty bedrolls, they forget that they once had lives. That they had birthdays, wedding anniversaries, love affairs. That they had a favorite television show, a dog, or a cat that they loved.
This is what it feels like to watch someone else’s agony: no matter how many times you listen and record someone’s story, no matter how many refugees you see crossing a mountaintop wearing plastic bags on their heads to protect themselves from the freezing rain — you do not get used to it” (58-59).
She describes how friends and neighbors become killers. She shows how one can find incognito, innocent killers in any town, in any country. Simply call out the men of thwarted ambition, of resentments, of small, potent grudges against neighbors. When a neighbor or friend, someone you trusted, becomes a proponent of killing, becomes the one who forces you out of your home or who sanctions atrocities, the psychological effect is disorienting:
“Sometime later, when Gorazde was getting attacked and ground down to a fine dust, Gordana saw Nikola on television, calmly explaining the logic behind the onslaught, as if he were explaining the different kinds of mushrooms in the woods. … Once she sat speechless with anger as he described how it was necessary to attack Srebrenica because the Muslims near Tuzla were launching assaults on Serb civilians. ‘I could not believe that this was the same man.’
She thought of his kindness, his tenderness, of him playing jazz on the piano, of him making jokes. “When I was pregnant, he called every day to see how I was feeling. That is what I think of. Not the war criminal’”(223.224).
But such men must be motivated and provided cover. She shows how Milosevic called them forth. He was a leader willing to say … ‘you have been wronged. They are the threat. They are responsible. Take your vengeance.’ He called out hatred long enough, and eventually men did anything and claimed they were the victims. He created a propaganda apparatus to call out this hatred, a reliable creator of lies for the ignorant and the brutal.
He called out hatred long enough for men to murder, churchmen to absolve them, and propaganda to praise them as defenders of the homeland, favorites of the blood. He gave them permission to kill and rape and torture. He gave them the means to overcome their basic humanity. Milosevic made his followers into things, tools filled with his malice, who made their victims into things.
Aliza Luft, who has done work on political violence, describes how “over time, the physical and emotional horror at participating in violence subsides. This, then, is how the moralizing rationale that draws on dehumanizing propaganda comes into play. How does one adapt to participating in violence? By calling on culturally available repertoires that frame violence as the morally right thing to do.”*
In other words, human beings can tap into themes of grievance and threat to create a moral belief in the rightness of killing while also proclaiming that anyone outside the group will never be able to understand such actions. The killers proclaim their killing as righteous at the same time they are trying to erase the evidence.
This type of evil seems to come over countries in a kind of mist, suddenly emerging from history and government preparation. It is neither a gene nor an unknowable theological event, but when it blows in, men can do the unspeakable. When it dissipates, they go back to their lives and go out for ice cream with their children and smirk at their victims who can do nothing.
There is always a line, always a before and after, always a moment when the tragedy could have been stopped, always a moment when the killing might have been prevented.
There is nothing exceptional about Americans or about our system of governance. Create an appalling enough atmosphere of threat and resentment, create a legion of enemies who serve as a foil, cultivate the worst, most abominable emotions of your supporters, allow a leader to describe himself (or herself) as the only one who can save the nation, attack any independent centers of power, subvert the rule of law, subvert the right to vote, create chaos and vow to restore order. Do all of those things, and a leader and Party have a shot at supreme power, and at all the consequences that inevitably flow from such power.
Her book The Morning They Came For Us: Dispatches From Syria is even better.
*The New Yorker December 11, 2017, page 5