Genocidal Bosnian psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic has been sentenced at last. Justice done, you might say without fear of contradiction, but what is it about psychiatry that has so often made it the handmaiden of despots and butchers?
Dr Radovan Karadzic (left) has learned his fate. Indicted before the International Court of Justice for crimes against humanity and genocide in the Bosnian war 1992-5, offences rated as the worst in Europe since 1945 make him the first doctor charged since the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial. Found guilty on 10 of 11 charges, he has been sentenced to 40 years in jail. With time already served and the usual remission, he could be out in just over a decade.
Karadzic is the highest ranking official to be sentenced by the court for crimes relating to the Bosnian war – Slobodan Milosevic died during his trial and the prosecution of General Ratko Mladic continues. Few dispute Karadzic’s role in pursuing a ruthless war that led to over 100,000 deaths and a million displaced people. A feature of the war was the use of terror tactics, including mass rape, to clear areas of non-Serbian inhabitants, known by the appalling soubriquet of “ethnic cleansing”. The atrocities listed in the indictment include his responsibility for the shelling of the Markale marketplace and the extermination of 8000 males at Srebrenica.
An examination of Karadzic’s life before he assumed leadership in 1990 of the SDS, the Bosnian Serb revanchist party, reveals an inordinately self-aggrandizing character. In his youth he regarded himself as a poet of promise, writing such inspiring pieces as Let’s go Down to the Town and Kill Some Scum. His later work “revealed an obsession with blood and violence”, a shining example being The Morning Hand-Grenade. He played the one-string guslé and coached – quite unsuccessfully – several soccer teams.
Up to the time he established the Republika Srpska in 1992, Karadzic was a practicing psychiatrist at the Kosovo Hospital in Sarajevo. He repaid his colleagues by shelling the hospital, killing both staff and patients. His claim to be writing the definitive book on depression did not impress other psychiatrists, who had a low opinion of his work. Early indications of his defective moral compass were selling medical certificates for social security and pensions, as well as fraudulent use of state funds that led to 11 months in jail.
After the 1995 Dayton Accords, Karadzic’s political future was on the slide but he still had support in Serbia and went underground with support from high officials in the government and military. His arrest in Belgrade in July, 2008, proved, if nothing else, that the Balkan tradition of extremism, grandiosity and absurd gestures still thrived. Working openly as an alternative practitioner under the teasingly alliterative title of Dr Dragan David Dabiç, Karadzic promoted a weird theory of bioenergetics. His familiar, jut-jawed face obscured by a dense beard, hair bound in a pony tail, he looked like nothing less than an aging hippy selling dope paraphernalia at a market stall. A woman who met him in 2005 said he was “like a monk who had done something wrong with a nun.” Showing that old habits die hard, he had a close association with an attractive divorcé who coyly denied any involvement and promptly became a media celebrity.
Karadzic’s sentence is justice in the strictly legal sense, but it will be little consolation to the survivors, families and relatives of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War 11. Karadzic, we can be sure, will continue to see himself as a grand martyr for the Serbian people and, as recent events in Bosnia indicate, no shortage of supporters. He thus joins the depressingly long list of genocidal leaders in the last century.
“These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
— Judge Fouad Riad, reviewing the Srebrenica killings
While many aspects of Karadzic’s personality remain deeply enigmatic, he displayed an extraordinary degree of reckless opportunism in which the instincts of an extreme gambler were unchallenged by any restraint or fear of the consequences. His most enduring characteristics are his grandiose self-image, reckless and profligate nature, boundless opportunism and grotesque capacity for self-deception. If nothing else, they disqualify him as a candidate for Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”.
Where Karadzic stands out in the perpetration of atrocity is that he is a psychiatrist and, as we saw in Nazi Germany, this is less of a coincidence that it may appear. Psychiatrists paved the way for the Holocaust by gassing their patients on the grounds of ‘life unworthy of life’. Since World War Two, participation of psychiatrists (and psychologists) in state abuse has been something of a growth industry. They played a role in abuse of dissidents in communist Europe, China and Cuba. There are disturbing reports about the role of mental health professionals in supervising torture of suspects at Guantanamo Bay. We can well ask with some justification if there is something in the role of psychiatrists that leads some individuals down the path to genocide.
In 1993, the American Psychiatric Association passed a motion condemning Karadzic for “brutal and inhumane actions”. The condemnation was issued with “particular offence, urgency and horror because, by membership and training, Dr Karadzic claims membership in our profession”.
Robert M Kaplan writes about the role of doctors in murder, human rights abuse and genocide. His last book is “The Prophet of Psychiatry: In Search of Reginald Ellery”.