• Ethan Walton

Genocide in Bosnia Through the Lens of James Waller’s Becoming Evil - Part 1

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

By Ethan Walton

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. Manifestations of Waller’s argument will be explored in part two.

Ethan Walton is an Early Warning Analyst & 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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