Jessica Stern

Why Listen to Evil Men?

By Jessica Stern

February 2020


I have been studying evil men for nearly three decades.  I use the research method of “empathetic listening” to elicit a perpetrator’s point of view to try to understand him.  Empathy is not sympathy.  It requires an ability to walk in another person’s shoes in your imagination, while in reality, still wearing your own.  To study a person’s motivations for criminal activity does not entail feeling for him, much less approval of his actions.

It is easier for most people to empathize with victims, not perpetrators.  But this research approach is not entirely uncommon among those who study evil men. If our goal is not simply to condemn a perpetrator’s evil actions, but to understand his motivations, empathetic listening can yield useful results.  I was able to learn, decades ago, about Iran’s funding of groups affiliated with Bin Laden’s World Islamic Front, even those with overtly sectarian branches; asource of Pakistani jihadis’ weapons; and also, about some of the emotional and financial “benefits” of joining terrorist groups.  As far as I know, I am the first scholar to have identified Iran as a funder of al Qaeda and humiliation as an important risk factor for terrorism.

There are downsides to this kind of research, however.  One is that it makes researchers vulnerable to the charge of being sympathizers to those they study.  In his review of Eichmann in Jerusalemfor the New York Times,  Michael Musmanno, who served as a judge at Nuremburg, accused Hannah Arendt of sympathizing with, and absurdly, defending Adolf Eichmann.  In a review of The Nazi Doctorspublished in the same paper, Bruno Bettelheim accused Robert J. Lifton of coming “dangerously close to the attitude expressed in the French saying, ‘tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner.’” Such misunderstandings can be painful. In my view, these harsh critiques reflected the reviewers’ discomfort with the depiction of the Nazis as the human beings they were; neither of these authors were in any way endorsing their subjects’ actions.  I have sometimes been called a terrorist sympathizer.  This is what happened with my latest book, which is about Radovan Karadzic, the “Butcher of Bosnia,” who is for the genocide of 8,000 Muslim civilians and the killing of many thousands more.  Many of the survivors of Karadzic’s crimes are still suffering and will live with the effects of the trauma for the rest of their lives.

The difficult task, for those who aim to understand perpetrators, involves the effort to suspend judgment while an interview is underway, to (temporarily) see evil men in the same way they see themselves, even though the researcher knows the perpetrator is guilty of the worst imaginable crimes.  Janine Natalya Clark, a professor at Birmingham Law School, proposes that the reasons that relatively few scholars interview war criminals are both moral and practical. The moral reason, which she sees as misplaced, is that scholars imagine that understanding might lead to forgiveness, in essence conflating empathy and sympathy. The practical reason is that the International Tribunals have resisted allowing such studies.

Every terrorist I’ve interviewed tries to justify his crimes as needed for “defense” of his people, whom he inevitably describes as under threat. But Karadzic, a psychiatrist, knew how to create dread of a chimera – a “sharia-based state in the heart of Europe.” He told me “I know how to control a mob with my eyes,” and he used this ability to mobilize horrific war crimes.  By the end of our two -year long conversation, readers will know Karadzic as the son of a violent Serb nationalist who murdered his own cousin because she would not marry him on his time table, a demagogue, a habitual liar, and a malignant narcissist devoid of shame; a frighteningly charming and manipulative war criminal who deliberately inflamed Bosnian Serbs’ fears of Muslims in a way that led to mass murder. Previous accounts have described Karadzic as a chameleon who took on the mantle of nationalism because it was politically expedient.  But over the two years we spoke, he made clear that his anti-Muslim nationalism was bred in the bone.

But the reality is that Karadzic wasn’t only a monster.  The reality is that leaders responsible for the worst imaginable crimes still haveseemingly positive traits that they are able to use in the service of their brutality. They can be  frighteningly persuasive.   As US Army Col. Douglas Kelley, who served as chief psychiatrist at Nuremberg Prison during the Nuremberg War Trials, wrote of the Nazi leaders he evaluated, they “were not spectacular types, not personalities such as appear only once in a century.”  They were men who were displayed “overweening ambition, low ethical standards,” and a strongly developed nationalism that justified anything done in the name of the nation.  As the Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulic wrote, “The more you realize that war criminals might be ordinary people, the more afraid you become.” If we aim to stop atrocities from occurring, we should heed these words as a perennial warning. Men like these can be found in many settings.  Such men will rise again.



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