14 October 2009

Believing the unbelievable

How do we decide what we are entitled to believe? It may sound a curious question, but one that has been going around my head for a week now, since my discovery that the Srebrenica Massacre of 1995 didn't actually happen. Or it did, depending on your point of view.

I suppose I had previously acquiesced in the view that, in July 1995 following the fall of Srebrenica, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, between 3,000 and 8,000 Muslim men and boys were rounded up by Serbian forces, shot and then buried in mass graves in various spots around the city. But according to www.srebrenica-report.com this was impossible logistically and numerically, and the number had essentially been created by Muslim spin doctors and swallowed unquestioningly by the outside world, giving the US government the excuse they needed to arm the Bosnians. Certainly, according to the Srebrenica Report group, the DNA evidence was flaky or non-existent beyond about 200 victims.

It's difficult to know how to react to that. My instant reaction was wariness, probably influenced by the precedent of Holocaust deniers. But the Nazi Holocaust is very well documented, the arguments are familiar and have been publicly documented many times over the years. In short, you'd have to be an idiot to deny the veracity of the scale of Hitler's Final Solution. But what about Bosnia? So much nearer in time, well-documented, and yet shrouded in the fug of public apathy, highly partisan views and UN shilly-shallying. If you read the Srebrenica Report site it appears lucid, well researched, fully cited and the product of people drawn from respectable academic institutions, not the ravings of a lunatic. Could they be right - and if so, does that make me a heretic to say so? Does it make me a Serbian proto-fascist? Is it the moral equivalent of denying the Holocaust?

Trying to find stuff out online, especially about something as complex as Srebrenica, is like trying to fill a water glass by standing under Niagara Falls. You can see why people form opinions and then filter the evidence to pick stuff that reinforces their view (can there be any other reason for the continued existence of The Daily Express?) - and not just because humans are hard-wired towards confirmation bias. Because to do otherwise would mean devoting your life to it, if you truly mean to read around a topic.

Richard Dawkins has recently published a book setting out the case for Evolution in which he equates people who refuse to accept the reality of Evolution with Holocaust deniers. Understandably this has upset quite a few people - but his point remains valid: why is denying Evolution in the face of overwhelming evidence seen as a matter of choice, but denying the Holocaust in the face of equally stacked evidence seen as completely unacceptable (and, indeed, illegal in some places)? Are we entitled to fail to believe something, despite all evidence to the contrary, simply because we find it an inconvenient truth?

Returning to Srebrenica, I decided the only thing I could do was at least try to find a consensus view, so I emailed Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News. It's not a story he has covered, so wasn't able to offer much insight, other than one of the members of the Srebrenica Report is George Bogdanovic, who has made a rather grubby little movie about the subject (http://www.offoffoff.com/film/2002/yugoslavia.php). Another was a former Defence Minister for Serbia. Neither of them declared these interests, but that was probably the extend of the dirt among listed members. Does it invalidate the evidence they cited? Does it rebut the awkward questions about the number of identified victims they raised? Casting Serbia as the devil no more answers these questions, than denouncing Hitler confirms the truth about Auschwitz.

This summer the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) published its latest findings that confidently identified a further 6,186 victims of the massacre at Srebrenica, bringing the total to around 8,100. Just about the same as the number of victims reported missing after the Serbian occupation (story here). Since this came a full four years after the Srebrenica Report group published their findings, I thought I should ask them for their reaction to these latest identifications. Their email address is no longer valid and the site has not been updated for a while. I don't think Srebrenica Report has done enough to convince me of their case - an opinion I think I am entitled to.

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