Review: Robert Block on Jessica Stern’s Karadzic

In his 1981 thriller, Red Dragon, Thomas Harris created protagonist Will Graham, an FBI profiler who could empathize so completely with mass murderers that he was always at risk of losing his own psyche when hunting them down. Such dangers came to mind as I was reading Jessica Stern’s attempt to get inside the head of Bosnian Serb war leader Radovan Karadzic in My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide. Stern, a scholar of terrorism who has interviewed violent extremists for other projects, herself addresses what she calls the “altered state” she enters when interviewing a perpetrator:

This process—of embracing the perpetrator’s subjectivity—feels necessary to me, in order to come fully to know how he thinks, but it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to alter my wavelength to match his, even though, in the moment that I join him, I’m not aware of the effort. Afterward, I’m disgusted. I dread returning to my notes, to the person I was when I embraced his subjectivity, when I became a fellow perpetrator.

“It doesn’t always work this way, but it did with Karadzic,” she writes.

Karadzic was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in 2016 and sentenced to life in prison in 2019. His role in the July 1995 massacre of eight thousand men and boys from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces was a central charge in the case. 

Stern’s book is the result of forty-eight hours of conversations in a Dutch prison that began in 2014 and ended in 2016. Her stated aim in talking to Karadzic was much like Gitta Sereny’s in her examination of Franz Stangl, the Nazi commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps, for the 1974 book, Into that Darkness. In both cases, the authors sought to uncover the consciences of educated and seemingly cultured men adept at rationalizing their genocidal deeds. Unlike Sereny, however, Stern comes across as reluctant to ask her subject the really hard questions. Stern says it’s because she didn’t want Karadzic to lie to her and she hoped that seeing things through his eyes would lead to some deeper truth. The problem is it never does.

Stern’s first and enduring impression of Karadzic is as a man trying to assert his intelligence and importance. She finds him “handsome” and remarks on this often. There are times he frightens and frustrates her, but mostly he fascinates her like a puzzle that can’t be solved. His responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre? Innocent, Karadzic insists. He didn’t write the directive that set the killings in motion. (Although he did sign it.) Stern largely leaves it at that but for noting with some research material that Karadzic clearly lied, lied in part, or mostly lied, at least, to himself.

Only toward the end of the book does Stern prick ever so gently at whatever sliver of morality she believes may be lurking inside Karadzic. “Is there anything you regret?” she asks. Karadzic stares at her blankly. “No, I had to protect my people,” he responds. And there it’s left, the predictable script of a nationalist justifying the unthinkable, no more than we could have learned from the headlines.

Stern later takes an offhand remark that Karadzic makes about how she reminds him of his wife to conjure a semblance of regret for the blissful domestic life that Karadzic might have led had he not become a Balkan warlord. Even the title of her book, My War Criminal, is unsettling, a caption to a two-year-long cerebral tug of war that disturbingly comes across as a quasi-intellectual love affair. The book’s final sentence, about her goodbye to the notorious nationalist after the last of their conversations, says it all.

“I did not kiss Karadzic,” she wrote.

And yet, she does. Over almost three hundred pages, Stern gives Karadzic a free hand to spin a self-serving story of his skills as a mystic with bioenergetic healing powers, a poet, a guslar (traditional singers of Balkan epic poetry, accompanying themselves on the groaning, one-stringed gusle), a “great” psychiatrist, a shrewd politician, a powerful orator capable of moving a mob, and, above all, the protector of the Serbian people.

Stern reflects on her own naiveté yet can’t help herself as she abets him in what is ultimately a myth-enabling enterprise. “I didn’t want him to lie to me,” she writes. “I wanted, grandiosely, to be the one person to whom he would tell the truth.” And: “he is a likeable man, and I found myself enjoying his company, at least some of the time.”

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In 2012, I testified against Karadzic in his war crimes trial in the Hague. I had reported from the Serbian and Croatian sides of the Bosnian War in the nineties, witnessed Karadzic in action around the country, and interviewed him. Foreign correspondents knew well Karadzic’s megalomania and had heard all his boasts and dodges before. Real and manufactured historical grievances were constantly trotted out as justifications for brutality. 

My coverage of the fall of Srebrenica had helped prosecutors link victims found in mass graves to execution sites. Since I was a witness for the prosecution, Karadzic—acting as his own lawyer—had requested to interview me before I took the stand. Under the rules of the tribunal, meant to protect victims, I was not bound to the ask, but did not feel threatened and did not want to pass up the opportunity to see if being at The Hague had changed Karadzic.

It soon became clear it had not. When I arrived outside his cell, I greeted him in Serbian, and told him, in Serbian, that we had met before during the war. He just stared at me, taking me in for a long time, before he said, in English, “So you were sleeping with a Serbian girl? Hah! The only way a foreigner would learn my language would be for a woman. There is no other reason.”

Ever at the surface was his penchant for showing off his cleverness to intimidate and ward off a threat. I had come to Stern’s book hoping for greater insight and regrettably found none.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Stern’s work, and one worthy of deeper thought, comes when she discusses nationalism and wonders whether Karadzic was merely a historical figure ahead of his time. “It turns out the ugly war in Bosnia may have been a portent of nationalisms to come,” she writes. “Karadzic may have been the vanguard. Bosnian-style nationalism is based on fear of demographic shifts, of being outnumbered by a hated minority.”

The parallels in America and many parts of the world, she argues, cannot be ignored. It comes down to the power of fear. Karadzic recognized the ways dread can motivate people. As Stern points out, the war in Bosnia didn’t begin with the bang of artillery shells but with whispered words of fear—fear of one’s neighbor—an invitation that only grows when captivated observers repeat it.

Robert Block is the co-author of Disaster, Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, He covered the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and genocide in Rwanda for The Independent of London; Mexico and Central America for Reuters; and Africa and the Middle East and counter-terrorism for the Wall Street Journal. In 2017 he became Watchdog Editor for USA Today’s network in Florida. 

Book notes
Amid the good news/bad news for books (book sales were up, now they’re down; customers rallied to independent bookstores, but remaining staff works harder for a fraction of the revenue; virtual author events draw thousands, the benefit to sales is uncertain), it was a bad week for journalism. Although readers are literally trapped in the grip of the biggest story of a generation, needing journalists more than ever for life-or-death information about what’s going on out there, the pandemic has, as in so many of our economic arrangements, thrown a harsh light on the rickety economic structures underlying our daily expectations. Last week saw major layoffs at Vice, Quartz, and Buzzfeed, companies thought to be successful pioneers of digital journalism, as well as the glossy-maker Conde Nast, a venerable stalwart whose prestige had been thought to insulate it from the moment’s rapacities. Last month Vox furloughed 10 percent of its staff and executives at Slate took a 25 percent pay cut. (See this Times survey for more.) The Atlantic magazine (around since 1857) announced on Tuesday that it would lay off eighty-seven employees and reduce executive pay, after proclaiming with great fanfare—and against the prevailing pessimism—just two years ago that it was aggressively expanding editorial and adding up to a hundred new positions. Closing down live events (which had been expected to contribute significantly to the bottom line) and video (a now-acknowledged dead end for news journalism) were not surprising. What was surprising was cutting editorial while by all accounts The Atlantic was leading the field in coverage and bringing in an abundance of paying subscribers—apparently 90,000 just since the pandemic’s start (160,000 since instituting a paywall last fall). Even when one has the benefit of a deep-pocketed owner (Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective, which uses both philanthropy and “impact investing” to support a range of “social-change” initiatives, journalism among them), the vulnerability of advertising in a post-Google, post-Facebook world is it seems still journalism’s Achilles heel.

But even more dire than the pain being felt in these national news outlets is the threat to local journalism, which observers now fear may be lethal. Editor of the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times John Nichols and his organization Free Press Action this week made the case for government funds to sustain local journalism, noting that lives literally now depend on in-situ coverage of the spread of the pandemic, and indeed nineteen US Senators signed a letter asking “that any future coronavirus stimulus package contain funding to support local journalism and media.” (The national outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are said to be relatively secure because of their national advertising and subscriber reach.) Australia and France took steps in recent weeks to compel Google and Facebook to reimburse news organizations for the advertising revenue they vacuum up while searching and sharing their content, even as journalists debated whether taking rescue funds from the tech giants created a conflict of interest. In response to a New York Times column by former Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith calling for federal intervention to redirect the platforms’ revenues to news publishers, Columbia Journalism Review’s Matt Ingram yesterday opened a fascinating round-table discussion among media watchers weighing the available triage. Wealthy investors change their minds; government and big tech are themselves objects of coverage (earlier this month the well-funded newbie Axios returned $4.8 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, amidst discussion of the appropriateness of independent media accepting government support). Ben Thompson, whose tech newsletter Stratechery was a pioneer of the paid newsletter model we are pursuing here at Book Post, took a contrarian view, saying journalism has only itself to blame for ceding revenue to big tech, and adding “I really do think that small scale subscription-supported media entities are underexplored.”

Though it was clear that, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (itself funded in part by Google), put it, we are not likely again to see conditions in which “lots of people have upper middle class life-long secure employment in journalism” and “the public in many ways pay a price for losing some of what we are losing,” every solution on offer at the moment seems to bring perils of its own.

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