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Published in Macalester Today
AUTHOR JAMES DAWES ON WRITING EVIL MEN
English professor James Dawes, author of Evil Men (Harvard, May 2013), is also the founder and director of the college’s popular concentration in Human Rights and Humanitarianism. Macalester Today editor Lynette Lamb interviewed him last winter about his book.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
The human rights world is quite small, and within that world I’ve been involved with lots of photographers, survivors, field workers, etc. A photographer named Adam Nadel got connected with this group of Japanese war criminals and wanted to bring a writer along. He knew about me from my earlier work and figured that someone like me should come along to take these men’s confessions. In other words, this project kind of fell into my lap back in 2008. It turns out that photographers are sort of like travel agents: They have to be really good at getting anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice. Adam did everything—arranging airline tickets, hotels, and transportation, hiring an interpreter.
What was interviewing war criminals like?
I’ve worked in the field of human rights for many years now and thought this would be the same as any other project. But it wasn’t the same at all. It was much harder. First there was the fundamental shock of meeting these people. They’re old and frail and dying and look like it, and they’re sorry, and you meet their kids and grandkids, share food and gifts, and feel kind of attached to them. And all that’s happening at the same time that you’re talking about historically monstrous acts they committed—that as part of their coherent identity they over many years raped, killed, and tortured people. To reconcile these old men with their truly unforgivable crimes made me feel guilty in two directions—toward their victims because I was sharing kindnesses with these men, and toward the men themselves because I was feeling judgmental toward them and perhaps they deserved some compassion.
How did these particular Japanese men come to regret their actions?
They were subjected to reeducation—which the U.S. would call Communist brainwashing camps—for five years and Siberian prison camps for another five years. There they were taught to be pacifists and evangelical Communists, that it was wrong to do what they did, that Imperialism was wrong. The only reason they get up in the morning these days is to atone for their actions. That’s why it was disturbingly easy to become fond of these men.
How did they behave during the interviews?
They were painfully open—their primary goal is to have people hear their stories. In Japan, many people don’t want to listen to these tales of war crimes. There is still a strong denial movement there. Even among average Japanese there’s often not much interest in knowing about this part of their country’s past. Some of these men have been threatened and ostracized for admitting their war crimes and for espousing Communism. They were very enthusiastic about a Western writer telling their story.
You don’t speak Japanese. How did the language gap complicate the interview process?
Working with a young female interpreter certainly added to the complexity of the dynamic. Many of the men particularly wanted to talk about crimes they’d committed against young Asian women; it was harder to get them to talk about killing children. So here we were having a three-way conversation with me as a foreigner by way of this young woman. But our interpreter, a graduate student, was amazing. She handled the whole thing with grace and courage.
How did you, as an English professor, come to specialize in human rights work?
My first book was straight literary criticism, but I was personally involved in the human rights community and it soon became clear to me that these were amazing stories. Basically human rights work is the work of storytelling—getting stories out urgently in a way that moves people. So I began gathering those stories and my 2007 book, That the World May Know, is a collection of them.
Was this research truly distressing?
You know, during interviews one must be open to the other person in their full humanity. You have to drop judgment and be present to who they are, which involves some degree of erasure of self. There’s a kind of intimacy that develops when people share with you these painful things they may not have shared before. It’s powerful.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope they’ll understand the feelings I had going through this process, of the deep internal confusion I experienced in those moments. I also hope they’ll understand that it’s good for people to be brought to existential doubt, which is an antidote to the fanaticism that produces this kind of evil in the first place. I hope my readers will experience the vertigo of being intimate with evil.
Excerpts from the book, Evil Men, by James Dawes:
On a first murder: Sakakura-san
“But then, suddenly, from the village, a group of fifteen, sixteen people jumped out. And at that time I had never even seen the Eighth Route Army [the primary military force of the Communist Party of China], what our enemies looked like before. And I didn’t know what sort of people these were, so I quickly dropped down on my stomach. Because lots of people had come out. And then the general said: “Fire!” He said, “Shoot them all!” And so I—I shot too. The bullet I fired hit. “It actually hit,” I thought. And most of the people, they dropped like flies, you know?
After they went down, then—there was a sorghum field, it was right in the middle of June, so it was big. The sorghum had grown, grown up to here. [He gestures.] And everyone fell into that, or ran into it, all sorts of things. I ran right off after them. And where I went, in the sorghum field, there was a collapsed person. I looked, and it was a housewife. The housewife, she had fallen over dead. And I thought, “Okay, a housewife. Nothing I can do about that,” I thought. I started to go, and from under the housewife’s arm, there was a small baby, you see. A small baby stuck his head out. And his hand—[silent] well, he was touching the woman’s breasts, you know, looking for them, touched them, you know. And then he looked at my face, and he smiled at me. And this really shocked me. After that, I found I couldn’t really walk, you know? And then, uh, more than scared, it was. . . . I felt a shiver up my spine. And then, although I tried to go, I couldn’t walk. And really, the older soldiers came in from behind, came in; we were being chased—“Run away!” they said. And then I left it just like that. We ran away, and then, so, after that, I thought about it, that child, with nobody around, would just die like that, I thought, and that was the most—of the war—my actions, for the first time—that sort of, to me, disgusting sort of feeling—that feeling really hit me, you know? So that’s one thing that happened.”
That is the middle of Sakakura-san’s story. When it begins he is a civilian; when it ends he is a perpetrator.
At the time Sakura-san told me about the baby, he was near death, and he was trying to make sense of his life. He had spent many years in prison camp—and many more years in social exile—examining the things he had done and the things done to him. He had committed atrocities, caused incalculable suffering, but he had also experienced trauma. Indeed, he had experienced his own crimes as trauma. He felt the closeness of death now, he said, like a kind of “pressure.” “I don’t have a future. . . if I don’t hurry up and talk now—if I died, there’ll be nobody to tell these stories.”
Douglas Johnson was until recently the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture in the Twin Cities. When international controversy over U.S. torture in Abu Ghraib was at its height, he gave a public lecture that I attended. In it he discussed the intelligence value of torture and the famous “ticking time bomb” scenario.
The “ticking time bomb” is a thought experiment designed to torment people who are moral absolutists about torture, who condemn it without exception. What if there’s a bomb somewhere in New York City, about to go off? Would you torture the person who knows where it is and how to defuse it? What if the bomb will kill 100 people? Is a terrorist worth more than 100 innocent lives? Is your moral purity worth more than 100 lives? What if it will kill 1,000 people? Is a terrorist worth more than 1,000 innocent lives? Is your moral purity worth more than 1,000 lives?
And so on. There is a number where every sane absolutist breaks down and hypothetically authorizes torture.
But this is science fiction, Johnson explains. This is not how torture works. Let me give you a more realistic case. There is a bomb at a nearby shopping mall. If it goes off, it will kill 100 or more people. Johnson pauses and looks around the lecture hall, as if searching for something among the 50 or so spectators. Then he locked his gaze on the first row.
We know that somebody in the first row knows something about this bomb.
Looking back to the rest of the audience, he asks: Would you be willing to torture them all to find out who that person is, and what he or she knows?
I am not sitting in the first row.
He continues: OK. Let’s imagine this. We know somebody in the first two rows knows something about this bomb. Would you be willing to torture them all to find out who that person is, and what he or she knows?
The first three rows?
This lecture hall?
And so on.
There is a number where every sane torture-defender breaks down.
In 1942, writes Yuki Tanaka, operatives of the Kempeitai, a special Japanese military force, raided a home in Banjarmasin and found a radio transmitter that they believed locals were using to communicate with Allied Forces. In the investigation that followed, 257 people were tortured and murdered. While this was happening, “a groundless rumor” of a radio being used in Pontianak popped up. Eventually more than 1,500 civilians were arrested, and most were tortured and killed. . . .
This is a common pattern: torture produces bad information and a lot of it. Torture one innocent and you will eventually get a list of names. The person you are torturing will say anything to make you stop, and she thinks you want names. So now you have a handful of names. These people are of course innocent, but you cannot know that, so you will torture them, too. Some will take longer than others, but eventually you will find that each of these people also has a list of names to give you. Now you have a conspiracy unraveling in front of you; you are onto something. Security resources are scarce, and occupied elsewhere—but this is important. Resources will simply have to be redirected.
But torture doesn’t only produce bad information; it also shuts down good information. Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth claims that, among intelligence personnel, it is widely agreed that the best source of information comes from cooperative communities providing information and tips. And in Iraq, he explains, Muslim communities stopped cooperating with the United States once it became clear we were using torture. Why would anybody provide information about peculiar or suspicious activity, if that might lead to cruel and inhumane treatment of Muslims or to the torture of innocents? Who would want that on their conscience? Best to keep quiet.
Adapted from Evil Men by James Dawes. Copyright 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.