IDEAS: I’m curious how you dealt with developing any feelings of sympathy with the war criminals you were interviewing.
DAWES: I’ve done human rights work for a while and I didn’t expect to find this a difficult experience. But if I had to find a word to describe it, it would be vertigo. There is a kind of vertigo to intimacy with evil. And it’s different. We read the newspaper and we see the awful things that happened in Boston, and we all know the awful things that people do to each other. History is really a tale of carnage. We mostly know this as a matter of ideas. And it’s definitely different when one gets closer, physically face to face, touching people, getting to know them. It changes the experiences of it.
I have this idea in my head that if people had watched me and the photographer and interpreter talking with these old men and the sound was turned off, it would have looked like we were visiting and talking to them about their grandchildren. We were smiling sometimes, sharing meals and gifts, and meeting their grandchildren. But instead we were talking about how they had killed other people’s grandchildren. And it was vertiginous.
IDEAS: Was there any one moment that brought on a crisis for you?
DAWES: The moments that strike me are the ones where I felt most compassion for them. And so there was one day when I was talking to a man who had done some really awful things. I was haunted by the stories he told me. At some point I just asked him about his mother and his relationship to his mother in the hopes of getting past a mere parade of shock. And he talked about coming back home from the war and seeing her. And she’d become ill and lost an eye and she was near death. And she thought he was a ghost. She was afraid he was a ghost. He had come home with this hope that he would see mom again, and she’d made him his favorite meal. And in talking about this and that moment when she wasn’t sure if he was a ghost and she had to touch him to see if it was true, he began to cry. And it was this moment when I wanted to touch him and put my hand on his shoulder, and tell him it was going to be OK. Which is a completely bizarre and strange moment. Because two minutes before we had been talking about him dropping a woman into a well and throwing a grenade at her child. Moments like that, I still don’t know what to do with. They are real moments of existential doubt and confusion.
IDEAS: But what’s the limit of that kind of sympathy and understanding? Can’t it be taken to an extreme?
DAWES: Sympathy and understanding can coexist with the fullest punishments we are able to mete out as a culture. I don’t think they have to be opposed. And sympathy doesn’t have to mean forgiveness.
IDEAS: Isn’t the question of “evil” better left to religion or philosophers?
DAWES: I think the notion of evil for a long time seemed antiquated. It seemed simple, and there was a kind of scholarship that didn’t take it particularly seriously. That’s changed. These things go through cycles, and this happened in the United States when, over the past decade, very shocking things that we had previously been able to ignore became impossible to ignore. And we were confronted again with the idea that there are actions that aren’t just bad, not just wicked, but that you need a different philosophical vocabulary for understanding them. And the word we have is evil. And so I think as a culture we are trying to understand at a level that’s deeper than just dismissing evil men as being beyond human. The only way to do that is to include everybody in the conversation.
Gal Beckerman is a journalist and author. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” was named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post in 2010, and has been released in paperback.