(Harvard University Press, 2013)
Just over a month after watching CNN get pilloried by rival media for its sympathetic coverage of two convicted teenage rapists in Steubenville, Ohio, I found myself glued to the television as every media outlet filled the tense hours following the identification of the Boston marathon bombers with bland updates, vague live-video angles, pointless maps, and whatever information they could scrounge up about who these young men were. After the elder brother died in a firefight with police, attention turned to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, only 19 years old, holed up somewhere in Watertown. Dzhokhar had been living in the United States for a decade. He had no known ties to terrorist organizations. His brother had possibly been “radicalized,” but by all accounts Dzhokhar seemed like a pretty normal kid. We heard from his friends, his classmates, his wrestling coach, his relatives. He was smart and friendly, a nice kid and certainly no prototypical terrorist. As the hours of coverage wore on and I regularly checked Facebook for first-hand information from friends in the Boston area, a theme arose. More than a few people expressed consternation over how warm a portrayal Dzhokhar was receiving. Had not this person committed an act vile enough to blot out any nice thing he had ever done? Was there not something uncouth about humanizing him through these personal testimonials? Parsing the investigation on his show, even Chris Matthews couldn’t help asking his guests, “Why does it matter why they did it if they did it?” For him, it was the act itself, the act of evil, that mattered, and nothing else.
The question of how we talk about evil and its perpetrators is tackled at length and in ranging detail by James Dawes in Evil Men. The book is centered on the Second Sino-Japanese War and anchored by confessional interviews with war criminals from the Imperial Japanese Army. Dawes approaches the topic in impressive turns as social scientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher, and human rights activist. His process of digging into the subject matter is intensely deliberate, always maintaining an assiduously respectful distance and an unwavering eye on the delicacy inherent in a public discussion about and with the perpetrators of heinous violence.
The paradoxical nature of atrocity is a recurrent theme, but the central paradox is this: There is a moral imperative both to speak of it, and not to speak of it. The former is easy. Sharing stories of humanity’s crimes against itself is a way to take lessons from our ugly history and, by sharing them publicly, to remember them collectively. Dawes quotes Elie Wiesel: “To forget is to kill twice.” We remember by retelling.
But at what cost? In terms of the welfare of surviving victims, there is a danger of re-traumatization when a historian or journalist attempts to pry open old wounds in the name of public edification. On a more philosophical level, when framing a “narrative” about an atrocity, we risk the “belittlement,” as Dawes puts it, that comes with trying to find comprehensibility in something that is, by its nature, incomprehensible. Homing in on Dawes’s experience with his interviewees, the philosophical concerns become immediate, and difficult to reconcile.
What is at stake in telling the perpetrators’ stories when the victims cannot tell theirs? When does listening to and recording a plea for forgiveness become a silent promise of forgiveness, a forgiveness you have no right to bestow or deny? And what is your motivation for doing the work: the call of responsibility to the other, the narcissism of moral righteousness, or the writer’s desire for sensational material? Is showing the most vicious and crude details an exercise in the pornography of evil? Or is failing to do so moral cowardice?
Sitting across the table from these wizened veterans, Dawes sees them simply as human beings, with whom pleasantries and personal details are exchanged, with whom trust is tried and earned. Their stories, though, uncover that they are, or, at best, were vicious creatures, men who committed acts of rape, torture, and murder that commonly earn the term “unspeakable.” Yet here, with arduous sensitivity, Dawes gives them voice.
In struggling to navigate these fraught issues, Dawes creates a work that is in itself paradoxical. Striving always for objectivity, accuracy of fact and tone, and topical omniscience, he still finds it impossible to leave himself out of it. The book’s structure is regularly rent by his descriptions of early drafts, methods of organization, and feedback from colleagues during his writing process. Beginning the book with a tone that can best be described as apologetic, he soon states his awareness that he is, in fact, habitually apologetic for shining light on such horror. So charged is the topic of atrocity, so difficult to introduce as a public discussion, the author is compelled to throw back the curtain on the throes of his own agonizing over how to present his research.
When pressing me to think about the genre of perpetrator confessions, … people sometimes turned the questions to me. Why are you telling their stories the way you are? … Why the continually shifting narrative voice and disciplinary perspectives? Those who knew I had collected fuller life biographies of the [perpetrators] were sometimes baffled. Why did you exclude those, choosing to reveal the men only through their most awful crimes?
Dawes’s multifarious study ethic notwithstanding, ultimately he has to make a choice about how to present his interviewees to the reader. His choice is to tell us that he experienced monsters as men, but he stops strategically short of humanizing them by way of a “fuller” biography. “I want this to be unsafe, to hurt,” he says of his inclusion of traumatic narratives, because the experience induced by these stories will give dimension to his discussion if that experience is somewhat traumatic. We think hardest about evil when we are faced with it, even if merely on the page.
The interviews, then, accost us with their simple horror, and they make Evil Men a difficult book to read. One wants to quickly dash away stark images of children shot or women raped. Dawes gives extensive space to his discussion of the impact storytelling has culturally, historically, and psychologically. But, regardless of the stories’ provenance or palatability, the salient idea behind the emotional investment inspired by narrative is consistent: “For listeners and bystanders, stories promote bonding and empathy, and empathy promotes helping behavior. For survivors, stories provide intelligibility and closure, and closure provides healing.”
Are we edified, then, by listening to the voices of perpetrators? The irreconcilable paradox is that trying to understand atrocity feels like a moral and social responsibility, but trying to understand its perpetrators comes dangerously close to excusing them. The reality, however, seems to be that actually achieving understanding is impossible. Dawes has led us down the path of ethical inquiry, but after events like the marathon bombings, experience reminds us how difficult it is to talk about such horror in a way that conveys the full weight of our feelings. Language always falls short. There will never be comprehension; only a noble try.
GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn. His debut novel, Fall, was published in 2010. More of his work can be found at geoffrey-young.com.