WAR CRIMES: The Million Dollar Question - Winter 2008 Ivy Leaf Magazine

Ivy Leaf - Winter 2008

WAR CRIMES: The Million Dollar Question

By Shari R. Routch


In the late 1990s, Ed Day was talking with a colleague who had just returned from Bosnia. She relayed to him the story of a sociology professor she had met while in the country. The professor told her how he had worked with the Serbs, launching shells into Sarajevo and directing the snipers who were killing civilians in the city. He then expressed how he couldn’t wait for the war to be over so that he could go back into the same city and take up his job as a college professor again.

The story stuck with Day, now an associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at Penn State Altoona. He wondered how someone could kill innocent civilians and then just go back to his normal life in the very same city. The story also inspired Day to join with other scholars at universities across the country to explore the issue. They looked at the existing criminology and criminal justice journals to see what criminologists were saying about this subject. When they found that only five such articles had ever been published, they knew they had to do something to bring about more awareness. Thus, the journal War Crimes, Genocide & Crimes against Humanity, of which Day is editor, was founded in 2005 and is funded through Penn State Altoona.

Day notes that historians, political scientists, and Holocaust scholars have explored this topic extensively; however, he and his colleagues felt that the discipline of criminal justice had something to add to the discussion. Much of this new criminological research focuses on theories to explain criminal behavior, with the goal of both preventing genocide in the first place and also understanding how an international judicial system could work to bring justice to the perpetrator.

In order to begin explaining such extreme criminal behavior like genocide, Day and his colleagues are researching the motivation behind juvenile delinquency. “I know that doesn’t sound like it makes a lot of sense,” notes Day. “How can you get to genocide from the same things that predict what the kids are doing?” But according to Day, some of the same ideas exist in both circumstances. “The ideas aren’t really very different—the way that somebody has to suspend morality for a while to commit the acts that they do.”

Research on serial killers and mass murderers also has been found to be instructive. “That’s what genocide in most war crimes is—mass murder,” states Day. “The idea of dehumanization of the object exists in both situations. Serial killers don’t see their victims as human beings and clearly people who commit genocide don’t do that either.” While genocide often has been viewed primarily as political or media-based, Day feels the concept of “dehumanizing somebody else to the point that you think it is okay to kill them” plays a significant role.

Day currently is working on a paper that specifically compares serial killers to those who commit genocide. In addition to the idea of dehumanization, Day has found that the level of brutality in both situations is similar. “People tend to look at genocide as almost a bureaucratic process. But when you actually look at what happens on the level of the perpetrators, you find a lot of the same types of acts, such as sexual ones.”

Of course, one distinction between the serial killer and those committing genocide is that the serial killer typically acts alone, while genocide involves multiple perpetrators. Day calls this distinction the “million dollar question.” If the reason an individual can establish a large enough following to carry out genocide can be pinned down, “you start to get somewhere.”

He posits that “the reason you have more people committing genocide than serial killings is because of the propaganda and media push that allows people to suspend morality; serial killers basically have to come up with that on their own.” Both types of perpetrators generally are “people who understand normal morality and just suspend it in certain circumstances. But so many more people get involved in genocide because their society allows them to do it, to suspend that morality,” he states.

While one may question the assertion that such perpetrators are “people who understand normal morality,” Day offers the following examples in response. “Ted Bundy, who killed many women, was president of the Washington State Young Republicans and had a letter of recommendation from the Governor of Washington.” He also notes that John Wayne Gacy, who killed a number of young boys and buried them in his backyard, also was a clown for children’s birthday parties and generally was thought of as a nice guy. As for leaders of genocide, Day recalls the famous story of a German concentration camp commandant who had no qualms about slaughtering thousands of people but cried when his dog died. “These are people who understand normal morality, but then suspend it in a particular circumstance,” he notes.

The notion of bringing justice to the perpetrator also is of importance to Day. “You can’t do a lot for victims of genocide, but one thing that seems to matter a lot is that people believe that justice has been done,” he states. While it is not always possible to find everyone who was involved in the genocide, bringing a few key instigators to justice sends a symbolic message to the victims that the world cares and is trying to do something about it.

According to Day, the International Criminal Court is the newest and first permanent international court to deal with these issues, although there were temporary tribunals in the past. The United States currently is not a part of this court, unlike much of the rest of the world. Day explains that, while the United States took the lead in establishing a formal tribunal after World War II to deal with the Japanese and the Nazi’s, since then it has not wanted to subject its sovereignty to an international court. While Day believes that this is a mistake on the part of the United States, he does not see it changing in the near future.

Ultimately, Day hopes that his work and that of his fellow criminologists will help to determine the warning signs that lead to genocide and war crimes as well as put into place appropriate preventative measures. In addition, through the International Criminal Court and other tribunals, he hopes that “justice can be brought to the situation in order to start the healing.”

War Crimes, Genocide & Crimes against Humanity can be viewed at: http://www.war-crimes.org/ online.