Howard Jacobson: We get the war criminals we deserve

Far worse than Karadzic himself are those who blindly followed him
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The Independent Online

Arresting headlines all last week. "Police arrest Batman" caught the eye. "Police arrest Balls" would have been better, but Ballsing up the education of thousands is not yet considered a crime in this country. Unlike ballsing up your own disappearance which in any decent society would not be considered an offence.

"Despicable canoe couple sent to prison" also gave one pause. What's a despicable canoe? In fact it was the couple who were "despicable" in the judge's view on account of their deception of their sons. Bad call, judge. Use every man after his deserts when it comes to deceiving children and who should scape whipping? Otherwise what did the Darwins do that so was so terrible? Swindle an insurance company? Why, half the people invited to take tea at Downing Street these past 25 years have had no better reason for being there. Enterprise, it's called. In a money-crazed culture you get knighthoods for it.

And isn't six years a bit steep for what they did, however you regard it? You can wipe out an entire family on your bicycle, knifing anyone who tries to stop you, and be given only half that. Explain it to me, judge. Explain why a crime against a financial institution weighs heavier than a crime against the person.

At least "Top war crimes fugitive arrested in Serbia" was a headline to raise the spirits. Photographs of Karadzic in his beard conjured memories of Saddam Hussein in his, only this time the picture wasn't muddied by guilt over our connivance in the tyrant's tyranny. Who isn't pleased to see Karadzic caught? I know, a few hundred thousand diehard Serbian loyalists, but who else?

There is no relief so deep as that which accompanies the apprehension of a war criminal. It takes us to the edge of madness when we don't get justice. I cannot sleep in my bed knowing there is someone walking freely with something that belongs to me in his pocket. I want him hounded to the furthest corners of the earth. And I will be satisfied with nothing less than life imprisonment – the death penalty if I'm to be really honest – when he's caught. But an ethnic butcher! It is beyond the living and the dead to bear his being on the loose, as there are still any number of pensioned-off Nazis on the loose in Australia, Argentina and no doubt Serbia, laughing, playing folk instruments, having sex, practising medicine.

Funny how often they practise medicine or a form of it. They start out as doctors, dentists or psychologists, move seamlessly into the torture business in time of war, then when it's all over return quietly to their patients. What does that tell us? That for the sadism necessary to the smooth operation of state terror you can't do better than recruit from the medical profession, because a person has to be a bit of a sadist to choose surgery or dentistry in the first place.

We might as well wonder why there are so many paedophiles in the caring industry or the church. The job attracts them. And since no one else will do what they do – why would you become a youth worker if you didn't enjoy the company of children a little too much, and who's ever heard of a squeamish, blood-fearing surgeon? – we have to accept that what heals society and what harms it has a common source.

The bit I find hard is that Karadzic is a poet. I like to think we're safe with poets. In fact it's only novelists we're safe with. As Anne Elliott cautions Captain Benwick in Jane Austen's Persuasion, "It [is] the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoy it completely; and the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, [are] the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly" And that's just Scott and Byron she's cautioning him about.

How "sparing" should we therefore be of Karadzic's speciality which was, and no doubt still is, epic poetry that luxuriates in the noble deeds and unjust sufferings of the Serbian People. Heroism, self-pity and nationalism set to metre – the brew is toxic. So it is with literature as it is with all things – medicine, social work, the church – the practice itself is no guarantee of humanity: you have to be able to distinguish between one poem, one kind of healing, one interpretation of pastoral care, and another. We tell the difference or we perish.

As stories circulate of how Karadzic has been living since he went missing, we discover as much about human gullibility as we discover about him. Apparently he frequented a pub called the Madhouse. Welcome to it. Here, dressed as a New Age guru in a flowing white beard and a topknot, he would drink slivovica, expound mystical wisdom and play the Serbian gusle – a single-stringed instrument which, if I'm not mistaken, you play with a bow, and which also, if I'm not mistaken, has deep folkloric significance.

Single-stringed instruments always do. They make men weep the sweetest genocidal tears. On the walls of the Madhouse were photographs of Karadzic as his former self. So it must have been a matter of satisfaction to him to know he was among friends even if they didn't know they were among him.

People who encountered him in his new incarnation, whether as patients, companions in slivovica and the gusle, or simply as members of audiences he addressed on matters spiritual, speak of his gentleness and kindness. He was devout. He was wise. What is more, he was loved. Aren't they always? In this case he was loved by a mysterious woman called Mila who followed him everywhere, sat rapt on the front row of his alternative therapy seminars, and no doubt set his beard in curlers for him every night.

We get what we deserve. Far worse than Karadzic himself – for what's a Karadzic without believers – are those who once blindly followed and obeyed him as a national hero and now blindly follow and obey him as a guru. How can it be, this far into our bloody history as killers and fools, that we are still willing to believe or follow anybody? How can we still not know to mistrust any man in a white beard and a topknot? A topknot, for Christ's sake!

How can we still not know to avoid spiritual wisdom like the plague? And how can we still not know to run a mile from anyone playing a one-stringed instrument fashioned to wring out tears of nationalist sentiment and turn our thoughts to slaughter? Welcome to the Madhouse indeed.