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NO 115-116

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Helsinki Charter No. 115-116

January - February 2008


Phenomenology of Denial


By Vladimir Petrovic

There have been and there will be much talk about the phenomenon of crime denial within the debate about the need to confront the past. And no one has ever said something in favor of this utterly disgusting mental exercise managed, from time immemorial, by individuals and collectives unwilling to bear psychological and physical, material and moral, legal and extra-legal consequences of their crimes. True, many a book has been written in the attempt to clarify the phenomenon of crime denial. Some of them have been translated into Serbian such as the excellent and comprehensive study "About Denial" by Stanley Cohen. And yet, we are still waiting for a satisfactory explanation for widespread denial.

Unfortunately, Cohen has not included Serbia in his research. And there is so much to add to the topic in the Serb context. Systematic deletion of the segments of the past that is not, after all, so glorious and pleasant to one's ear is not a novelty in Serbia, the same as pressures on few individual opposing the trend. So, contemporaries were strongly accusing Vuk Karadzic of revealing the ghastly details of the massacre conducted by Serb rebels once they entered Sjenica. Milan Milicevic said it was great shame that he /Karadzic/ shared this information with the famous German historian, Leopold von Ranke. To this, Karadzic retorted, "True, that's a shame for Serbs but doing it was also shameful. And the things that have been done should not be hidden from history."

However, not many followed Karadzic's example in this regard. According to Dubravka Stojanovic, Serb history has been perceived as a kind of military training. Therefore, it has been both recorded and lectured in the spirit of apologetics of nation-state, complete identification with the predominant ethnic community and spread of hatred for minorities and neighbors. Serb crimes have been hushed up, whereas those committed by others exacerbated. And in all this, politicians have been trying to catch up with intellectual elites. Nothing changed after the World War II the victims of which have been arbitrarily and misguidedly assessed for decades - all this resulted in the terrifying bidding over the number of killed, which was turned into propaganda mechanism for preparation of a new war.

This new war cruelly contradicted all those ascribing the success of the policy of crime denial only to poor flow of information. The crimes committed during ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration have been thoroughly and promptly documented, almost simultaneously with their commitment. And yet, this information neither prevented new crimes nor changed the political climate of the community of executioners. This information either met disbelief or its significance was ignored. The people ascribing denial of crime to the skillful war propaganda were also denounced. The wars are now over, Milosevic is no more either in power or among the living, but an entire Phalange still persistently denies crimes or justifies them.

But the things are even worse than that in Serbia. For, paradoxically, denial has some advantages. An individual's inability to face up the crime he has committed or the crime committed on his behalf testifies that he is ashamed of it, sees it as something utterly rotten and wishes it had never happened at all. Is that the case in Serbia? I wouldn't say so. "Knife, barbed wire, Srebrenica," crowds are shouting in stadiums. "Ratko Mladic cuts throats clean," says a graffito on the railway station. Those creepy examples taken from the anthology of modern Serb popular lyrics testify of worrisome truth: many people know exactly what happened. And they regret not. On the contrary, they regret that the crime is over. That's the worst outcome of the cumulative warring propaganda according to which denial of crime is nothing but benign pastime of chauvinistic intellectuals. Their denial to look the truth into the eyes is after all just a weird testimony that the truth exists, that they know about it and are ashamed of it. True, that's an embarrassing testimony of the same moral universe we all share.

Therefore, deniers are not the real problem here. Were they not operating in the society plunged into the crime they would have sooner or later creep under the stone from which they had crept out. This is why in Serbia - unlike in France, Germany or a number of other countries - denial of crime has not become a crime itself. Instead of going to jail, deniers are bestowed literary awards and granted appanage. Denial has become a cultural model that reproduces itself and denies all those who thought that the change of generations would bring about a change. Instead of a change, new verses are added to the old ones such as the Belgrade Syndicate's popular song "Beef" picturing a young, autarchic Serbia and its distorted perception of the world's expectations from it. "No chance that I give up Gucha, kaimak and plum brandy/ and tolerate Croats, Borka and gay parades/ Fuck those Levy's documentaries/ I am not ashamed of my origins!" In the country where many "bravely" look the truth into the eyes and accept the "bitter kismet" of crime for the sake of attainment of their ethno-nationalistic goal, the problem is not in denial of crime but in active or passive support for crime. Rather than investigating the phenomenology of crime we should, therefore, investigate the origins of people's enchantment with brute power and the misery it inflicted. What force makes people identify themselves with the policy of crime by their own free will?

Probably a part of the answer lies in the fact that Milosevic's strategy of "uninvolvement in the war" devastated Serbia ethically and in the long run. That war by proxy - in which Serbia was and was not involved - has dangerously distorted perceptions of many citizens. Immersed in its own problems and lost in economic chaos, Serbia has Biblically hardened. "For hardened is the heart of those people, and hardened are their ears, and they closed their eyes not to see, their ears not to hear and their heart not to understand" (Matthew, 15). The political elite used this fog to finalize the project of national homogenization and missed no opportunity to involve as many people as possible into the complot.

Fortunately, the success was incomplete. When ten years after the end of the war in Bosnia the Serb state broadcaster aired the video showing Scorpions' atrocities, people were shocked and disgusted. Practically no one dared to openly question the authenticity of the recording, let alone approve its content. Though the initial response was short-lived, the very fact that people reacted gives raise to the hope that the political elite is the one that obstructs confrontation with the past and that fascination with brute force would fade away faced with its brutal manifestation once this elite is gone.


NO 115-116

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