International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

James Dawes’ “Evil Men” – Representation of Human Cruelty

Yesterday I attended James Dawes’ lecture on his book, Evil Men. The event was sponsored by UChicago’s Human Rights Department and attending the talk has broadened my perspective on human rights issues to consider input from fields outside of political science. In fact, Dawes is an English professor and his book is summarized below:

“Presented with accounts of genocide, we ask how people could bring themselves to commit such horrendous acts. Drawing on the firsthand interviews with convicted war criminals from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) that inform his recent book Evil Men (Harvard, 2013), Dawes will explore what motivates atrocity and how it can be stopped.”

My initial reaction to the idea of Truth Commissions was puzzlement over how something I perceive to be a deeply personal experience (coming to terms with trauma) can be experienced through a political, public mechanism such as truth commissions. How does talking about their crimes make perpetrators repentant? How does talking about their trauma relieve victims of some of their burdens? Mendez notes that there is an obligation to document war crimes but is there an un-fillable gap between a survivor’s truth and public knowledge?

Dawes expresses his concern for exposing the private space of trauma through representing atrocities. He gave the example of photojournalists who document these conflict zones and massacres. The “image of horror can have an allure” that calls on the human attraction to horror. Consider a car accident on the side of the road. How many drivers slow down to drive past, perhaps hoping to catch a peek of some macabre scene? How can representations of evil avoid making a “pornography of evil?”

Though Dawes brings up many paradoxes in representing evil, the one often overlooked paradox that builds the foundation of arguments for or against Truth Commissions is the paradox of trauma. On one hand we must represent atrocities, but on the other, we must not represent atrocities. Dawes does not cite reasons of political calculus or pragmatic barriers of funding, but instead focuses on the philosophical nature of traumatic events. He argues that it is impossible to transform a traumatic experience into words since trauma itself is something so beyond ordinary human perceptions that one does not even truly experience it. The traumatic event is too traumatic to be conscious or intelligible; it is in-cognitive. Dawes cites the sentiments of Holocaust survivors, many of whom remark that their experience of the Holocaust is like a gap in their being, something that cannot be understood. Dawes takes this as evidence for trauma being an assault on meaning and this cannot be transcended. In a way, representing trauma through words or art or speech is a betrayal because it suggests that one can restore what is in-comprehensible with art. But on the other hand, one must represent trauma as it is worse to be silent.

Another important paradox Dawes cites that directly relates to Truth Commissions is the paradox of confession. Dawes makes a point about the nature of confession and its compatibility with local traditions. During his research with Japanese war criminals, a colleague urged him to re-evaluate his use of the word ‘confession’. ‘Confession’, the term, implies psychoanalysis, Western thought, forgiveness. When the Japanese war criminals use the term, are they even talking about the same thing? Are they thinking of Confucian ideals? The same could be asked of all non-Western contexts where confession is used as a means to achieve reconciliation. Additionally, confession is a power relation. The listener is not just the locator, but a person who has the power to decide how to transcribe perpetrators confession, what to do with the confession. This made me think of truth commissions who use a mixture of international and local commissioners. What is the effect of the “Western, educated, rich commissioner” on the confession of perpetrators? Confessions, especially at truth commissions, are performances with actors, stages, and scripts that offers perpetrators an opportunity to trade in a sinful past for a forgiving present. Thus, we should be suspicious of remorse given these factors. In a way, truth commissions could indirectly pressure and insist that victims to forgive for the sake of the “greater good” of national reconciliation.


I think that Dawes’ insight from an English and Philosophy background can inform the broader understanding of the merits and pitfalls of Truth Commissions. It’s important to remember that in the midst of all these pragmatic problems with funding, policy, and physical enforcement, truth commissions and responses to human rights violations deals with the core of what it means to be human. Being aware of these paradoxes (there are many more than I mentioned) can better inform policy makers on their actions. To what degree do you agree or disagree?


Here’s a review of his book if anyone’s interested in learning more:



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