Friday, June 3, 2011

The Delusions of “Strongmen”

Philip White

Though Osama Bin Laden was protected by armed guards and 18-foot high, barbed wire-topped walls, in his Pakistan hideout, many other ne’er-do-wells live far more conspicuous lives.

When Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general accused of eleven counts of genocide and war (including the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica), was arrested last week, one assumed that he had been living in a high-security secret compound in a non-extradition country for the past few years. In fact, he had done nothing of the sort—preferring to live in the open in Belgrade. He had appeared at public functions, nightclubs and football matches, yet somehow evading capture.

Mladic is not the first diabolical “strongman” to have flaunted his freedom in the face of national and international arrest warrants and indictments. His boss, Slobodan Milosevic also resided at a villa in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital and largest city, though he put up more of a fight when cornered, threatening to kill his wife and daughter as he and his henchmen defended his weapons-filled residence. Such was his disregard for human life. Milosevic was found dead in his cell at the U.N. war crimes detention center in the Hague in March 2006.

Many Nazi war criminals fled to South America, where they enjoyed luxurious lifestyles and the diplomatic protection of sympathetic despots. Others remained closer to home, such as Milivoj Asner, the Austria-based former Nazi police chief of Croatia, who, at age 95, caused worldwide outcry with his appearance at a Croatia-Austria football match in 2008. Apparently the lure of the “beautiful game” was too much to resist, even for notorious men of violence. He was repeatedly declared mentally and physically unfit to stand trial, despite his claims to the contrary, and was called a “good neighbor” by far right Austrian President Jörg Haider.

A continent away, former Ugandan tyrant Idi Amin, who killed at least 300,000 of his own people, fed out-of-favor ministers to crocodiles and butchered political opponents, lived a life of luxury in Saudi Arabia. When author Riccardo Orizio met Amin as part of his research for the book Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators, the so-called “Big Daddy,” “had spent the previous years taking a morning swim in the pool of the local Hilton, having his back massaged by an Egyptian masseur at the Intercontinental, and finally having lunch at a third hotel.” Some “justice”!*

So what can we conclude from such brazen attitudes? Some of these individuals have become so used to wielding terrifying power, with friends and enemies cowering before them, that they think they are immune from justice. In the case of others, their delusions are so all-consuming that they have talked themselves into believing the fallacy that no crimes were committed. According to Orizio this was the case with Amin, who, when asked if he had any regrets, shamelessly replied, “No, only nostalgia.” Sadly, those Ugandans who survived his brutality have quite different memories.

*Accessed via the New York Times archive.

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