My War Criminal: Personal Encounters with an Architect of Genocide has caused a stir in Bosnia-Herzegovina and especially among the Bosnian community in the United States. Jessica Stern, who has previously written on the psychology of terrorists, attempts to get inside the mind of convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, who has been convicted of orchestrating the genocide of Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslavian wars (1991-2001). The recent excerpt in the New York Times — an excerpt which Stern, bizarrely, has disavowed — turns out to be representative of not only Stern’s methodology in interviewing Karadzic, but also the seductive spell under which she has fallen.
Stern tells us that she likes to enter the mind of the perpetrator, and that she ‘follows his moral logic closely’ so that she will be able to understand it. She becomes a ‘fellow perpetrator’. This approach, paradoxically, defies logic. A Karadzic has no ‘moral logic’: his ideology rejects both ethics and logic. Stern, meanwhile, chooses disinterestedness as if she is evaluating a painting or a sculpture. Karadzic is ‘charming’, ‘attractive’ and ‘tall’, with beautiful, full hair. He’s even ‘Byronic’, a genius from a Romantic novel — a hero of our time!
Stern finds herself more attracted than repulsed, and her obsession with Karadzic’s physicality recurs in almost every chapter. Karadzic is not your ordinary terrorist, a cold-blooded killer and rapist. He is poet, politician and psychiatrist all rolled into one beautiful bioenergetic healer, and he’s looking for redemption. The only problem is that Karadzic feels no guilt for his war crimes against Bosnian Muslims.
The core of Stern’s failure is her moral ambiguity. Her apparent attempt at objectivity forfeits ethical judgment and historical accuracy: ‘My impossible task involved the effort to stay open to Karadzic’s explication…rather than blindly accepting a common narrative — that the Serbs were evil genocidaires and the Muslims guileless victims.’ This ‘effort’ leads Stern to accept and repeat Serb propaganda that Bosnian Muslims wanted to start a theocracy and place Bosnia under Sharia law.
This couldn’t be further from the truth: Bosnia’s unique and authentic multiculturalism would not have allowed it. To sustain a mirage of objectivity, Stern continuously minimizes the genocide against Bosnian Muslims. She fails to make intelligent distinctions between Islamist ideology and the varieties of Islamic philosophy and theology. She continuously minimizes the genocide against Bosnian Muslims –– and minimization is a step on the road to outright denial.
Stern tell us that ‘fear’ is at the center of this book. But this is not true. At the center of My War Criminal is her complete trust in the banal diatribe that Karadzic tells her. She appears to be aware of this problem, but she continuously lets herself be overpowered by the grand ‘duke’ of Montenegro. Whether it’s Karadzic’s autobiographical musings about learning Serbian epic poetry or his rootedness to the mountains, or his insistence that Bosnian Muslims are Turks, or his flawless and destined transition from peasant to city boy, poet to psychiatrist, psychiatrist to politician, and finally leader of the Serbian tribe and a healer, it is he who commands her attention and, by controlling the game, ultimately controlling the ‘truth’ of who he is. If Stern’s intention was to become Karadzic, then she has succeeded. But that tells us more about Stern than Karadzic.
Stern affirms that Karadzic is not what he seems; or rather, that he is not all the Philokalia, the prayer book of Orthodox monks, and that Stern hasn’t looked at it either.
To say that Stern romanticizes Karadzic is to put it mildly. Stern indulges in utter eroticization of not only a war criminal but also what she believes is her relationship with him. It matters to her that they meet in a room at The Hague reserved for conjugal visits, that Karadzic flirts with her. She feels strange, aesthetically elevated feelings when she visits Montenegro, and continues to have erotic paroxysms in her next encounters with Karadzic.
This book is not about the genocide of Bosnian Muslims. It’s not even about Karadzic, at least not fully. This book is about Jessica Stern and her fantasy war criminal. Her inability and unwillingness to see the truth comes at great cost. The amoral eradication of moral judgment is an immorality that silences the voices of the victims.