The Chronicle Review

Understanding Evil

Christophe Vorlet for The Chronicle Review

July 01, 2013

The man sitting in front of me is a mass murderer. 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.

I am visiting with him now because I have spent too many years interviewing survivors of war crimes and human-rights workers and wondering: What kind of person could have committed those heinous acts? I want to know. So I am internally preparing myself, during the smiling pleasantries of our introduction, to ask.

When we start talking about his war crimes, we might as well be talking about a figure from a history textbook, for all the emotion we show. If we were on a television program and you were watching us with the mute button pressed, you would imagine I was asking about his grandchildren. Instead I am asking about how he murdered other people's grandchildren.

I want to know because it is important to understand why and how these things happen. It is important to get the historical record right. But when he begins to open up, telling me the details of his crimes, they are so upsetting, so disgusting, that I realize I will never be able to share them with anybody. I do not want to write a pornography of evil. I suddenly do not see the point of another literary forced march through the carnage of history. I begin to wonder why I am here.

My friend, the photographer Adam Nadel, is taking his portrait. Adam is not rattled. He has taken more-difficult pictures elsewhere, most recently in Darfur. And he is an artist. That alone suffices as a reason. He came to Japan to photograph the Chukiren, a notorious group of confessed war criminals from World War II, before they all died. He asked me to come along. I said yes—I interviewed 12 of them—but now I am thinking I shouldn't have. I feel like a voyeur.

Trauma studies is a transdisciplinary field that encompasses the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts. I came to it by way of an English Ph.D., like so many other graduate students in the 1990s who read literary criticism by scholars like Elaine Scarry, Shoshana Felman, and Cathy Caruth and thought: This feels real; this feels relevant. When we became professors in the post-theory years, our anxiety about relevance pushed us further and further away from the fields in which we had trained.

Simultaneously, undergraduate programs in human rights were being created around the country, in institutions large, like the University of Chicago and Southern Methodist University, to small, like Bard and Macalester. By the late 2000s, we had found ourselves part of a newly named subfield: literature and human rights.

Scholars in literature and human rights do not share a unifying method or theory. But they do share a commitment to connecting their campuses to the larger world, whether in the form of service learning, fieldwork-based research, or even their own volunteer work with nongovernmental organizations. When people ask me why I believed I was adequately prepared—as an English professor at a small Midwestern college—to take confessions from some of history's worst perpetrators, this is the only answer I can give: It seemed a logical next step in my scholarly work.

When I started the project, I didn't think it would be emotionally difficult. The moral obligation felt so clear: Gather the testimony; find out what happened; do not let the historical revisionists win. There are still people in Japan who shade the truth, shift the blame, underplay the severity of the country's violations, even deny that the crimes were committed. (Try Googling "mayor of Osaka" and "comfort women.") At its most basic, human-rights work is nothing more than a contest of storytelling with those who would avoid accountability.

But taking perpetrators' confessions was hard for me. Part of the difficulty was the intense interpersonal self-consciousness. He is crying now: Do I show compassion? He doesn't want to talk about this: Should I press?

By describing atrocity, are we sensationalizing the private stories of those who have already been violated?

One incident summarizes the confusion. A friend I was traveling with became sick. Conveniently, the man we were just about to interview had been a doctor in the war. It turned out he had been a vivisectionist. He organized "medical training" sessions in which the Japanese would take healthy Chinese people, strap them to tables, and practice field surgery on them: bowel resection, limb amputation, and (after shooting them) bullet removal. They did it without anesthesia. Why waste that on Chinese people? This man had abused the most basic premises of what it means to be a doctor. But he was a good doctor to us, helping my friend. We thanked him.

The more-enduring confusion of working with perpetrators, however, wasn't personal. It was conceptual. My interviews raised questions I couldn't answer. I left the tapes untouched in a file cabinet for more than a year because I couldn't resolve the paradoxes. 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? When we take evil that is beyond understanding and put it into words, are we bringing healing clarity to the raw confusion of trauma? Or are we falsely packaging and simplifying something that ought never to be reduced, translating inexpressible evil into something common just for the sake of sharing a story?

"Evil" can be a sloppy word, an impediment to understanding. It means "bad" plus "unidentified metaphysical stuff." Saying something is evil is often a way of ending a conversation, stopping further analysis, letting ourselves be satisfied with thought-dulling mystery. "Evil" can also be a dangerous word. To say something is evil is to say it can't be understood; it can only be hated. We use the word "evil" when we need to prepare ourselves to do violence. Evil is the ultimate "other."

But to talk about these men, I need a word that insists there are acts that exceed our normal categories of wrong. I need a word that insists that, no matter how long you stare at it, no matter what light you put it in, there will always remain something beyond what you are able to see or say. These were evil men.

But are they now? The Chukiren are no longer the men they were. They were "re-educated" in a Chinese prison camp. They have apologized: some to representative Chinese authorities; some directly to family members of their victims. They have spent the past several decades seeking atonement, working as peace activists. They did evil things when they were young—but when we look at them now, who should we see? What stance should we take toward them? Near the end of each interview, I asked about forgiveness. Do you feel as if you have been forgiven? Do you deserve forgiveness?

In The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal describes how he was fetched to the hospital bedside of a young Nazi soldier who was dying. The man wanted to speak with a Jewish prisoner so that he might apologize for his war crimes and be forgiven. Wiesenthal listened patiently to his stricken plea and left without responding. He tortures himself afterward for his relentless stance, but Cynthia Ozick insists this is a mistake. "It is forgiveness that is relentless," she writes. "The face of forgiveness is mild, but how stony to the slaughtered."

Sitting with the men, I think: I have no right to be here. I have no right to ask these questions. But I have put myself here specifically as an interviewer, which means that, as a matter of training, I must enter their homes without judgment. I tell myself this is the right thing to do, but I have doubts. What would a family member of the victims think about how friendly I am being? What if one of the victims could be watching from outside the window? I do not escape choices by not judging. Not judging is a choice.

I recently wrote a piece for CNN about a Syrian rebel who carved out a man's heart and began to eat it. The editor had asked me to explain what could make a man do such a thing. I tried to explain, and many people were outraged by what I wrote. In one way or another, they were all saying: You think when you try to understand why men do evil things, you are going to learn something that might help prevent atrocities in the future. But really you are just excusing the perpetrators, justifying unjustifiable actions. The only thing you need to understand about evil is how to punish it.

Many of the Chukiren have died since I last spoke with them. The others are failing rapidly. I'm not sure I ever really came to understand them. But that is not because what they did is beyond understanding, not because evil is some kind of mystery. In some ways, it is all quite simple. If I had been a 19-year-old when my country entered into a genocidal war, I would have done the same thing everybody else did. That's true for most of us. Making monsters is a straightforward process, and ­nation-states are expert at it.

Why the war criminals did what they did—in the end, that is not what I find hard to understand. What I find hard to understand is what must it be like to be the person who did those things. When we imagine getting perpetrators into our hands, the first thing we think about is punishment, what we as a society are going to do to them. But I think the real and final punishment is having to be the person you are.

James Dawes is a professor of English at Macalester College and director of its Program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism. He is the author, most recently, of Evil Men, just published by Harvard University Press.