Milosevic and the psychopathic nature.jpg

Milosevic and the psychopathic nature

HE MAY have cheated a verdict, but Slobodan Milosevic died a loser. That was how American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, one of the most important figures to engage Milosevic during the Balkan crisis in the 1990s, described the former Yugoslav President after his death two weeks ago.

Initially a Communist, Milosevic adopted the stance of a fierce Serbian nationalist when Yugoslavia began to break up in the 1980s. Many emissaries to the region met Milosevic in the period leading up to his removal from power in 2000, including British politicians Paddy Ashdown and David Owen and former American Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Visitors found Milosevic smooth, courteous and charming, ready to listen and accede to their demands. But, when his guests left, Milosevic did what he wanted to do – usually, that meant killing. James Rubin, the American State Department’s chief spokesman between 1997 and 2000, said Milosevic resembled a smooth-talking Mafia boss with a penchant for whisky and expensive cigars.

Brought before a war crimes trial in The Hague, Milosevic filibustered by defending himself, delivering long speeches and taking extended time out for illness. His trial dragged on for more than four years and would have gone on much longer had he lived. Needless to say, Milosevic never expressed any remorse for his actions, even though most commentators estimated he was responsible for four wars that led, directly or indirectly, to the deaths of more than 300,000 people.

Amiable tyrants have stalked the corridors of history

History teaches us that psychopaths can be amiable, even charming. Thirty years ago it was Idi Amin, Uganda’s buffoonish ruler for eight years, who dominated the news.

Amin tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of political opponents. Some press reports even alleged that Amin killed a member of his cabinet and ate him with his dinner. Ironically, the international community initially supported Amin – the convivial, laughing tyrant and talented sportsman who enjoyed a good party. “When he wasn’t killing people, he could be a lot of fun,” said one of Amin’s aides in a portrait on TV’s Biography Channel.

The BBC’s Brian Barron interviewed Amin in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after he was deposed in 1979. Amin promised he would regain control in Uganda and denied reports of appalling atrocities. In Barron’s words, “he rejected any responsibility for the years of brutality, for the murder of his opponents, claiming he had been working for the poor people of Uganda”.

Tyrants seldom express remorse even after their capture. Denial is an integral part of the psychopath’s make-up. Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield made this point when he revisited Eugene Terreblanche, the neo-Nazi South African white supremacist leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), 15 years after a classic documentary called The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife.

In the first film, recorded around the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in 1990, Terreblanche was a swaggering, spitting bully, screaming abuse at blacks and white moderates. In his recent documentary, His Great White Self, Broomfield found a chastened figure, more interested in quoting poetry than rallying militant whites. In the intervening period much had changed. Apartheid had ended and the AWB had carried out a sporadic pre-election bombing campaign in 1994 – but nothing like the “white revolution” they had promised. Terreblanche himself had served time in jail for a savage attack on a black farm worker. According to some reports, Terreblanche had “found God” inside jail and repented. When Bloomfield met him again last year, everyone wanted to know if Terreblanche had changed. Bloomfield replied: “Terreblanche didn’t think he had anything to apologise for. If he did, he would have had a nervous breakdown or committed suicide. He was really the same man, only his ability to be the thug we’d seen before was diminished.”

Bloomfield’s point is a good one and can be inverted just as easily. There are many psychopaths in our society who lack the means to do what they secretly crave, constrained by authority and the knowledge that they cannot commit crimes with impunity. But remove the threat of punishment, provide them with the opportunity and they will unleash their true nature. It’s a chilling thought…

• Gabriel can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

by Gabriel Hershman