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  • Writer's pictureEthan Walton

Bosnian Genocide Through the Lens of Waller’s "Becoming Evil"

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Mevludin Orić, a survivor of the Srebrenica Genocide. Photograph by John Whitaker

By Ethan Walton

Professor James Waller provides a compelling explanation of a population’s participation in acts of genocide in his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, through which we can study genocide in Bosnia and possibly draw some conclusions as to why the average citizen seems to be so easily compelled to participate in brutal acts of violence. Waller seeks to avoid the explanation that is evil "an otherworldly, uncontrollable force", as this does not encourage accountability or understanding of the processes behind acts of evil.

In Bosnia between 1992-95, it was the participation of average Bosnian Serbs that enabled the genocide to be so effective. As Serbia laid its claim to territory in Bosnia by force, they also eradicated, forcefully converted, or deported the populations they deemed to be exterminated. Thousands of Bosniaks were killed and subsequently buried in mass graves while others were tortured and imprisoned in camps. While the mass murder and rape of civilians were primarily perpetrated by Serbian forces and paramilitary units; it was the local inhabitants that help loot homes, terrorized Bosniaks, and participated in the extermination of their former Bosniak neighbors.

Vojislav Šešelj, the founder of the Serbian ultra-national Srpska Radikalna Stranka (SRS), touted the idea that only with the establishment of a “mono-ethnic” state could peace be achieved in the Balkans. This was one reason that genocide become a matter of policy during the war. The Serbian plan necessitated that Bosniaks be killed, deported, or converted to Serbian Orthodoxy in order for the dream of an ethnically pure Serbia to be achieved. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević along with military and party leaders strove to ensure the survival of a “greater Serbia” and a Yugoslav state; one that would unite Slavic peoples under one government. These nationalist sentiments were stoked by anti-Muslim attitudes and a desire to have the territory ruled by the Serbian Empire of the 1300s restored. In the end, Serbian leaders created narratives intended to dehumanize Bosniaks or fabricated historical injustices, causing Serbian citizens to become emboldened and convinced of the urgency of carrying out violent acts against their neighbors.

Waller explains the willingness to commit genocide first through in-group vs out-group bias. Individuals gravitate towards communities; often of others who look or believe the same as themselves. Given the right conditions, it is not difficult for various groups to be manipulated into believing other groups pose an existential threat to their own. The threat presented by an out-group increase when the differences between groups are amplified and they are portrayed to have very few similarities. The perception of these differences often also leads to prejudices that can result in discrimination and violence. Waller writes that "We evaluate in-group members more positively, credit them more for their successes, hold them less accountable for their failures... and find them more persuasive than out-group members" (p.175). This is not innately genocidal, but Waller goes on to explain how it can lead to group-based violence. It develops into "collective identity, social obligation, and group commitment" and can "easily evoke suspicion of, hostility towards, and competition with an out-group" (p.178). And it may "even translate into collective violence or a genocidal imperative as they are used to forge in-group solidarity and undermine the normal inhibitions against killing out-group strangers" (p. 178).

Fragmentation of political identities, religions and colonial expansion into other continents created a vast number of opposing groups and multiplied the potential for them to come into conflict and create division among and bias against one another. This huge variety of groups with opposing cultures and views enables political discrimination and exclusion, but also creates perceived differences and prejudices between groups, solidifies group loyalty, and forms bias that could be used to dehumanize, blame, and justify violence against out-groups.

Waller continues by arguing that out-groups are often placed into the category of the “other,” meaning a group to which moral considerations do not apply in which they can place the victims of genocide. This, in conjunction with moral disengagement, which is the reduction of the moral community due to “fear, hatred, ignorance, and scarcity of resources,” and victim blaming, creates justifications for why victims deserve the acts being carried out upon them or why these acts are supposedly necessary (p.290-292). Victims can be dehumanized and removed from the moral community when group values and views are reinforced, and group members are convinced that they are superior to, have been wronged in some way, or that a threat is posed by the “other.” These postulations are explicitly present when studying inter-group violence and genocide in Bosnia.

Waller’s description of the creation of the “other” through dehumanization and demonization was essential in indoctrinating the Serbian population into acting on the violence that Serbian nationalism promoted. Serbian leaders effectively placed Bosniaks in an “other” category, excluding them from the moral community for most Serbians. Bosniaks were commonly depicted as “Turks,” possessing the same violent, brutal, and destructive attributes that the Ottoman Turks who invaded the Balkans in the 14th century. These nationalist narratives, in particular the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, were essential in furthering the divide between groups. This battle would become a rallying point of Serbian nationalism, the underlying narrative being that the Ottomans, and subsequently their Bosniak descendants, had no claim to the land in the Balkans, were still persecuting Serbians, and deserved to be expelled, killed, and have other acts of retribution carried out against them. Anti-Muslim rhetoric on the part of the Serbs came from other popular sources as well, such as the epic poem The Mountain Wreath by Peter Petrovic Njegos. An excerpt reads: “faithless Turk, with Koran! Behind him hordes of that accursed breed, that they might devastate the whole wide earth, As locusts pestilent lay waste the fields!... From out of Asia where they have their nest, This Devil’s brood doth gulp the nations up.” Through the spread of media and dehumanization such as this, Bosniaks were separated into an out-group.

Just as Serbian nationalist narratives fabricated connections between the Bosniaks and Ottomans, he claimed the Bosniaks were also innately linked to the Ustaše, the group of Croatian ultranationalists that collaborated with the Nazis and organized concentration camps to imprison and kill Serbians during the Second World War. The vast majority of Bosniaks in the 1990s had no connection to these atrocities, yet nationalist narratives characterized all Bosniaks as Ustaše to exploit the national trauma of brutalization and further dehumanize the out-group. He was able to use the fear and resentment many Serbians held towards the Ustaše as a means to incite violence against non-Serbs and define them as enemies worthy of having revenge carried out upon them. These characterizations illustrate Serbian efforts to create an “us vs them” dichotomy between Serbian citizens and soldiers and the Bosniaks they would carry out a genocide against.

Serbian leaders and media created propaganda in order to make the Serbian population fearful and hateful towards their neighbors. Once divisive narratives were embedded in an individual's psyche, many soldiers and citizens had no reservations in committing atrocities that they viewed as acts of retribution or even self-defense. The “Prijedor Monster Doctors” conspiracy was one such lie that was created to force Bosniaks into the “other” category in the eyes of Serbians. This case claimed Dr. Mirsad Mujadzic, a Bosniak doctor, was forcing abortions and drugging Serbian women to prevent them from having children. Reporter Peter Mass, author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, quoted one Serbian commander saying “Why the fuck are you so concerned about these camps? Why don’t you fucking investigate the murders of the Serb babies?” (p.36). These sentiments and anger were highly prevalent throughout the military and much of the population, justifying violent actions in the eyes of Serbians.

In the UN criminal tribunal testimony of Ivo Atlija, an iron mine worker who lived in Prijedor during the beginning of the Balkans conflict, he describes the effects of the proliferation of divisive narratives and the result of a creation of the “other” along with in-group and out-group orientation. During his testimony, he reported on the verbal propaganda the Serbians engaged in, citizens gathering together, calling all non-Serbs Ustaše, and beginning to carry weapons in the street under the justification that they were protecting Yugoslavia. Rumors of the mutilation of Serbian women invigorated the Serb population in Ivo’s town. Soon he would be fired from his job and would return to his parent's house. When the war began, Prijedor was shelled, invaded, and occupied. The inhabitants never fired a single shot in resistance. In his own words, Ivo said of when the Serbians marched into his village, “They [the Bosniaks] were terrified, and they kept saying that the Serbs were killing everyone they could see, that they were raping women, and torching houses.” He recounted the burning of the entire town and the murder of the inhabitants. His parents were killed, however, he hid and escaped. He also testified how the Serbian soldiers consistently called the innocents they killed “Ustaše dogs.” Many inhabitants of Prijedor were made to dig their own graves before they were beaten to death or shot.

Through these accounts and examples, we can see exactly how intentionally Serbian nationalism propagated narratives that divided the Bosnian Serbs from their Bosniak neighbors. The nationalist rhetoric used against Bosniaks helped convince the Serbian people that they deserved revenge for past events, that their enemies were sub-human, and that all Bosniaks were a threat to the Serbian people. Waller effectively shows how this fabrication and manipulation was possible through the systems he details. Not mentioned in this article is Waller’s concept of the “social construction of cruelty,” in which, through professional socialization, members of a group can become accustomed to cruel acts when these acts are deemed necessary and morally acceptable to the group as a whole. This intensely strong group identification can result in the merger of an individual’s self and their role within their group and lead them to not be able to separate the potentially genocidal acts they are carrying out from who they consider themselves to be. Although not discussed, it can still be seen as being highly prevalent during the genocide and in the rhetoric of interviews with Serbian citizens and military members. Analyzing genocide through Waller’s processes is of the utmost importance if we are to move beyond viewing genocide as the product of the unalterable, pure evil of an individual, but rather as a result of perceivable phycological processes that can be changed and combated.

Ethan Walton is a Genocide Watch Communications Coordinator​

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch.

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