In Self Preservation

On Monday, former Bosnian Serb political leader, Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted men, was found and arrested for war crimes. Although the 63-year-old man is fighting extradition to the Hague (Netherlands), he will likely be sent away by early next week and face charges from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). He was captured after 13 years on the run.

. . . except he wasn’t really running. He hid in plain view.

Three parts to this story (so far, anyway) fascinate me: (1) the way Karadzic disguised himself, (2) what he has chosen as his post-arrest identity, and (3) what impact his decision to represent himself will have on his defense at the UN tribunal.

1. Many news reports are offering the same story. Karadzic practiced alternative medicine, published articles, and made professional appearances. He had a mistress, a photo of a fake family, and frequented a bar that proudly displayed photos of him and another war crimes fugitive. That he lived so freely was probably his best disguise. That he turned into a loveable “grandpa” and alternative medicine guru is second. It’s close, but it doesn’t beat the idea of a man of his former stature riding the bus.

2. Apparently, Karadzic has cleaned himself up a bit since his arrest. Says his lawyer, “He’s looking good. He had a haircut. He shaved himself and is in great shape. He now looks just like before.” But is it great that he looks just like before? Granted, some Serbian nationalists continue to revere him, but many others see him as a calculated slaughterer. Is it really in his favor to shed the “grandpa” look and re-identify himself with the image many associate with evil? This move is surprising considering the savvy he showed in his everyday maneuvering. Just because he’s no longer in hiding doesn’t mean a new appearance is of no further benefit. Is his ego winning here or does he have another agenda?

3. Last, in a nod to his predecessor at the Hague, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic has chosen to defend himself with the aid of a team of lawyers. According to several news reports, this approach was what allowed Milosevic to prolong his trial (perhaps the OJ Simpson approach of exhausting decision makers into submission is a now popular plan of attack), but, again, what does Karadzic gain by aligning himself with such an image? The moves he is making seem to be more like one of a martyr  – in this case of someone sacrificing himself only to thumb his nose at Western political forces and give hope to waning Serbian nationalists – rather than the actions of a person who seriously expects to fight for the sake of winning his freedom. Am I reading too much into his actions? Perhaps. But I can’t help but think that the downturns in his rhetorical judgment mean a downturn in his treatment of the UN legal system as well.

(On a side note, I’ve noticed how news writers are tiptoeing around certain issues. Half of the articles I read referred to “ethnic cleansing” only in quotation marks and often preceded it with “so-called.” It is still a contested term, and arguments against it include that it is vague and can imply either too much or too little. “Genocide” is an unpopular term because its usage, so the argument goes, would make post-World War II ethnic slaughters comparable to the Jewish Holocaust. “Crimes against humanity” is a moral claim that says a lot, but yet it doesn’t capture the motives or intentions in the same way as the other two terms do.)

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