What is it like to confront evil in a face-to-face encounter? This is a question that James Dawes poses to himself frequently as he interviews war criminals.
Dawes, a professor of English and director of the Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, is a scholar of trauma studies who seeks to understand the motivations of perpetrators of war crimes.
“The man sitting in front of me is a mass murderer,” writes Dawes. “He is a serial rapist and a torturer. We are chatting about the weather, his family, his childhood. We are sharing drinks and exchanging gifts. The man is in his 80s now, frail and harmless, even charming. Instinctively I like him. It is hard for me to connect him to the monster he was so many decades ago. I think it must be hard for him, too.”
Dawes has written an essay on “Understanding Evil” that raises important questions about the moral dilemmas of researching atrocities and war crimes: “By representing atrocity, are we giving voice, and therefore respect, to the victims who have been silenced? Or are we sensationalizing the private stories of those who have already been violated?”
The challenges of conducting oral history interviews of war criminals are related to broader methodological questions about how societies construct the historical memory of war crimes and how historians analyze atrocities and mass violence.
Gaining insights into the dynamics of mass violence is certainly useful to contemporary societies, but investigations of past atrocities can be traumatizing for both the perpetrators and victims of that violence, as well as for the researchers who investigate war crimes.
Dawes’s essay on “Understanding Evil” is published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Japan Times reports on a center on the historical memory of the Chukiren. The photo above comes from this article.