Help me understand war criminals!
November 3, 2009 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Which books help me get into the psyche of war criminals, suicide bombers, etc?

I am currently looking for books that reveal the offender's inner motives, perspective, or mindset about their crimes, and the context in which they committed them. Not ones that simply justify the crimes, but explore the human side of the offenders.

I'm specifically interested in books about events in the past century: Rwanda, Palestine, Iraq, the Holocaust... although any outstanding books dating further back in history are welcome, too. And I'd prefer if they weren't overly heavy with advanced psych vocabulary - those meant for the layperson are preferred.

I currently have "The Road to Martyr's Square" and "Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak", so any along those lines, either biography, autobiography, or historical fiction.

posted by hasna to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Fiction: Paradise Now
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:25 PM on November 3, 2009

I haven't personally read Columbine by Dave Cullen, but from discussion on this site, it reportedly does an excellent job exploring the psyches and motivation behind Harris and Klebold.
posted by zsazsa at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2009

The Looming Tower.

It was amazing to see just how inept Bin Laden's organization was, how they were viewed with contempt by the Afghans who had been fighting the Soviets for some time. It is easy to look at Al-Qaeda as simply evil, but the book goes a long way in getting into their naive and misguided mindset.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:30 PM on November 3, 2009

I haven't read it (though it's on my list), but it sounds likely that Gitta Sereny's Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, which is based on her extensive interviews with Fritz Stengl (commandant of Treblinka) may be up your alley.
posted by scody at 12:35 PM on November 3, 2009

(sorry, should be Stangl, not Stengl.)
posted by scody at 12:36 PM on November 3, 2009

This isn't the exact same question you're asking, but some of the answers might be useful.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:36 PM on November 3, 2009

Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning "follows" battalions of reserve policeman (the ordinary men) sent to Poland to shoot Jews.

A lot of the people/reports he draws on (both the policemen and their officers) weren't happy about the killings, some backed out and wouldn't do it (and weren't punished)... but the majority of them did what they were told. So in this case you may read that a lot of the killers didn't have a motive as such - which is the point he's trying to make.

The opposite side/rebuttal of that argument is Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Personally I think Christopher Browning, whose books in general are excellent on the Holocaust, is more convincing.
posted by selton at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2009

palestine by joe sacco
posted by nadawi at 12:53 PM on November 3, 2009

Psychology of Terrorism
posted by glibhamdreck at 1:34 PM on November 3, 2009

Philip Zimbardo's The Lucifer Effect made me think quite a bit about situations that can tend to undermine how a person would normally act.
posted by lauranesson at 1:45 PM on November 3, 2009

While the criminal in question is in no way political, you may be interested in Evan S. Connell's Diary Of A Rapist.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:53 PM on November 3, 2009

Jonathan Littel's The Kindly Ones should definitely be on your list. "It tells the story of a former SS officer who helped carry out massacres during the Holocaust," and does so both exhaustively and from his perspective.

(the attention it's been getting in reviews is also interesting. the wikipedia page gives a good list of those.)
posted by spindle at 2:01 PM on November 3, 2009

Holy Terrors, Second Edition: Thinking About Religion After September 11.

This is both a painful book to read and a fascinating one.
posted by strixus at 2:14 PM on November 3, 2009

I teach a course on terrorism and rational choice, so send me a message if you're interested in more references along these line:

- The Psychology of Terrorism (Horgan, 2005 - different from glibhamdreck's)

-The Mind of the Terrorist (Post, 2008)

Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind
(Reich, 1998)

-Inside Terrorism (Hoffman, 2006)
posted by brozek at 2:17 PM on November 3, 2009

Hannah Arendt was all about this

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
posted by Truthiness at 2:20 PM on November 3, 2009

William T Vollmann's Rising Up Rising Down
posted by Threestigmata at 2:51 PM on November 3, 2009

possibly a bit of a sidetrack, but there's an article in Slate on the current reexamination of Hannah Arendt in general and on her "banality of evil" thesis in particular.

(And, as selton suggestions, if you do read Hitler's Willing Executioners by Goldhagen, please take it with a large grain of salt, and/or do not let it be your first book on the topic. I find his work to be sloppy and highly problematic in many ways, and it's not particularly well-regarded among many [most?] German and/or Holocaust historians.)
posted by scody at 3:21 PM on November 3, 2009

You might be interested in A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Baeh. A Long Way Gone is the autobiography of a child soldier in the Sierra Leone conflict. The whole concept of children as soldiers may be unthinkable to most of us, but his writing did a good job explaining how children found joining the war to be their best, and often only, option. Also covers some of the difficulties of "rehabilitation" and rejoining society.

(Baeh got out of Sierra Leone eventually to finish high school in NYC, then went to college and is now, obviously, a writer. The book finishes up before that point.)
posted by whatzit at 4:14 PM on November 3, 2009

"The Nuremberg Interviews" is a collection of interviews of many of the top and middle-level Nazis conducted post-WW II by a U.S. Army psychiatrist at the time of the Nuremburg tribunals.
posted by webhund at 7:10 PM on November 3, 2009

A.J. Dunning's Extremes.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:26 PM on November 3, 2009

Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism by Robert Pape. It is a fascinating study, showing that economics and politics are bigger motivators than religious extremism.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 1:51 PM on November 4, 2009

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