Moral accountability and implicated subjects from Yugoslavia to Trump

Jelena Subotić is Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is the author of Hijacked Justice: Dealing with the Past in the Balkans (Cornell University Press, 2009), Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell University Press, 2019) and more than twenty scholarly articles on identity, political memory, and politics of the Western Balkans. Her introduction to Yugosplaining is here.


We are living through multiple, overlapping global disasters. Even before the pandemic hit, the successes of the far right and nativist movements, the establishment of permanent orders of displacement and abuse, the destruction of institutions and marginalization of expertise, the epistemic closure of completely destabilized truth regimes, have all created a permanent state of anxiety and crisis. The current global health catastrophe has only accelerated these trends.

For those of us from the former Yugoslavia, crisis and anxiety never really went away – they just morphed into different things to be anxious about. If anything, they probably heightened a sense of permanent crisis and sharpened our antennas to detect the early signs of a rolling disaster, perhaps earlier than others would. We act as the Vanguards of Catastrophe, if you will.

The global pandemic brought these finely-honed skills into sharp relief. Now, finally, others can feel just as anxious as we’ve been feeling all along. In a perverse way, global anxiety calmed down our individual anxiety. If you are always preparing for the worst and the worst finally comes around and everybody experiences it, you feel strangely relieved – you’ve been preparing for this all your life and now your moment of “things will always get worse, I told you so” has arrived, at long last. Of course, we always knew it would.

But other than a general sense of doom, what actual wisdom could I possibly impart from my biography that would help illuminate our current catastrophes? All of us carry specific burdens, flashbacks, nightmares or simple annoyances, “lessons learned” or things never forgotten from our individual and collective experiences of the Yugoslav disaster. My interest has always been in the legacies of political violence, how we remember the past and what that memory does and what political project it serves in the present. Specifically, though, I am interested in the various levels of responsibility for political violence. Who is to blame for the catastrophe that has befallen us? And how broad does that responsibility go? How are individuals responsible? How are states? How are societies? How are we, ourselves? How am I?

Our current nightmares are overlapping and plentiful and there are different categories and actors of responsibility for each. So, I want to focus on one category of disaster, because I want to think through how it implicates me, as a citizen, in it. This disaster is the Trump regime and specifically, I want to argue, it is the moral culpability of those people who voted for Trump, who still support him, but also of all of us Americans who are implicated subjects in the Trump regime’s continuing campaign of atrocity.

And here I can bring in some reflections from the problems of defining and establishing responsibility for the crimes of the Yugoslav wars.


Atrocity denial is enduring

In 2005, a videotape resurfaced during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. It was a videotape shot at the site of genocidal killing around Srebrenica in 1995. In the video, a group of Serbian paramilitary thugs who called themselves “Scorpions” tortured and killed a group of very young Bosniak men, including a 16-year-old boy. One of the “Scorpions” can be heard shouting at the boy: “Now you will die a virgin.” The prisoners dug their own graves, were made to stand at the edge of the pit and were then shot in the back. Throughout this ordeal, the Serbian killers joked and worried that the camera recording the executions will run out of battery power.

The brutality of the scene, the clear identification of the killers and the victims, and the sheer horror of the event initially shook Serbian society. The video was replayed on most TV stations for about a week. But this is how long this shock lasted. And while the Serbian war crimes prosecutors used the tape to identify and ultimately arrest the perpetrators, four of whom were ultimately convicted of war crimes, the broader narrative about the Bosnian conflict and, specifically, about the genocide in Srebrenica, changed very little if at all.

In the Serbian public memory today Srebrenica represents an irritant, a yet another piece of evidence of anti-Serb propaganda, in which international actors blame the Serbs for the worst of the atrocities, while leaving Bosniaks, Croats, and Kosovo Albanians off the hook for their own violence against Serbs. Srebrenica, in Serbian public remembrance, is mostly about the Serbs – the unfair designation of the massacre by the ICTY as the only case of genocide committed during the Yugoslav wars, the unfair identification of the Serbs as the principal instigators of the wars, the unfair claim that it was the Serbs who have committed most war crimes. Srebrenica today represents a fundamentally irreconcilable difference between how Serbia views itself and its role in the war of the 1990s – and how the rest of the world has judged it.

The point of retelling this story is to stress that atrocity denial works in stages. While the 2005 video destabilized the position of literal denial (this did not happen), it allowed for the displacement of the event from people’s everyday lives and spheres of responsibility onto a group of sociopathic thugs who did not represent us, did not speak in our name, and, really, had nothing to do with us at all.

There is strong social psychology research that demonstrates this dynamic. The more people are confronted with the evidence of group crimes committed by their ethnic (or racial, religious) group against others, the more entrenched loyalty to their ethnic group becomes, and the stronger the hostility against the victim group.

I relive all this as warning – the images, evidence, and testimony of our current American atrocities – the immigrant children in cages, the sea of refugees detained in concentration camps, the police brutality and stone cold assassinations of our black citizens, this evidence means less than you think. People have a remarkable ability to ignore what is in front of them, to displace these images and their implications from their minds, to disconnect from the unpleasantness that these images bring. Also, there is too much cruelty going around – individual horrors fade away to make room for the new ones that take their place.

All of this is to say, it is a fool’s errand to expect that if denialists would only see evidence of atrocity, they will accept it and break the cycle of denial. I am here to tell you this will never happen.

A vast majority of Serbian citizens in the 1990s who did not support Slobodan Milosevic still broadly supported the Serbian nationalist project, identified with its political goals, and especially agreed with its stratification of enemies. In other words, Milosevic was completely epiphenomenal to the much larger nationalist universe, one which made intuitive, emotional – if not always intellectual – sense to many, many people. And this allowed for a useful disconnect between the broader policies these people approved of and the much narrower personal distaste for Milosevic and his, well, aesthetically unpleasing methods.

This is how we should understand Americans who vote for Trump but even more those who don’t personally support him but support a larger nationalist universe he represents. They broadly support the MAGA vision, with its white resentment, its misogyny, its racist anti-immigration. They find Trump personally embarrassing and kind of grotesque, but the country Trump wants to create they find appealing. They get increasingly agitated by public attacks on this worldview and are incredibly offended when they are called racist. When Trump finally loses or is deposed, they will claim that they never supported him, had always hated him, and that “Trump hurt white Americans more than he hurt anybody else.” Trust me. I’ve seen this movie before.

The political responsibility of MAGA America is obvious and not worth spending much time on. A much more interesting question is what is the responsibility of everyone else. This is the question that has been animating both my research and my personal relationship to the Disaster.


Societal responsibility and implicated subjects

In a 2011 Journal of Peace Research article, I developed what I pretentiously called the “triple accountability framework” for mass atrocity — of individual perpetrators who committed the crimes, of the state that hired them to implement the practices, and of society that supported or tacitly approved repressive state policies. I argued that the most controversial of these three levels (and the one I consistently received the most pushback on) – societal responsibility – involves responsibility of citizens of offending states on the basis of their citizenship and societal membership, and not on the basis of their national identity or other kinds of “deeply rooted” cultural affinities. Citizens of Nazi Germany or 1990s Serbia or Trump’s America are responsible for atrocities of their state because they provided a permissive social and political environment for the atrocities to occur and did not do enough to prevent them. Trump, like Milosevic before him, built his policies on a societal receptivity to violent claims (of white supremacy, racism, misogyny) that were broadly accepted, normalized, and routinized in society. Elections only gave these criminal policies a patina of legitimacy.

Citizens, even in democracies, have either advocated for these policies, or have failed to stop them. They can be held politically culpable because they did not disassociate themselves from such criminal practices and often they openly supported them. They bear societal responsibility for mass atrocity. Their responsibility does not derive from some inherent national flaw or genocidal intent – their responsibility is as citizens and derives from their relationship to the state and society they inhabit. This is my primary point of departure from cultural and essentialist explanations of mass atrocity.

Understanding and accepting this societal responsibility is also the only way forward to combat the pervasive denial of atrocity I already discussed. Focusing only on individual responsibility of Trump, or his criminally implicated children, or Steve Bannon, or Mitch McConnell, however villainous they truly may be, is, actually, in direct tension with the goal of countering denial of broad social complicity in mass crimes. Individualizing guilt offers society an easy way out, an opportunity to project the responsibility onto a few select thugs and deny our own culpability for massive crimes that were committed in our names.

I have presented this argument many times, and it has always annoyed people. The main counterargument I get is always the same – I didn’t vote for Milosevic, or I didn’t vote for Trump, or I didn’t vote for George W. Bush or for Brexit, or whatever. I am not responsible. Leave me out of this. That’s fine and understandable as far as it goes. But it does not inoculate us from larger, metaphysical responsibility as citizens who still benefit from structural racism or from structural inequality, or from structural anti-immigration policies. Even if we oppose them, by our own position in society we are implicated in them – an argument that goes at least as far back as Karl Jaspers.

So, how do we conceptualize this additional level of responsibility? And how do we apply it to the idea of responsibility for life under Trump?

Here I find the recent work by Michael Rothberg on the implicated subject incredibly helpful. Rothberg builds on the same Jaspersian categorization of responsibility, but he updates it with a very useful and broadly applicable concept, an analytical category that can help us understand the kind of society that makes Donald Trump possible.

Who is an implicated subject? Implicated subject is aligned with power and privilege without herself being a direct agent of harm. She benefits from the regime of inequality, or oppression, without directly originating or controlling it. As a citizen, she participates in social structures that generate violence, without actively choosing or advocating for them. Implicated subjects are, basically, those of us who live in and participate in the structures of racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, or economic injustice and structurally benefit from them (we are the ones who have secure jobs, and are not victims of random racialized police brutality, and have unrestricted cross-national freedom of movement). We are implicated in these structures of violence in a different way than our Trump-voting fellow citizens. We may have less political responsibility, but we certainly have the moral one. We are the asymptomatic vectors of the atrocity pandemic.

Of course, the question is, what is to be done? What is the remedy for the culpability of implicated subjects? If I had answers I wouldn’t be in the business of writing. But I do have a plea – for cleaning in front of our own houses first, for more self-reflexivity and less defensiveness, and for awareness of our own roles in the social processes we describe. This Disaster, eventually, will also be our personal history. I want to know that I tried my best to change it while I still could.

4 thoughts on “Moral accountability and implicated subjects from Yugoslavia to Trump

  1. What a great read, and what a writer! Thank you! I send it to my children (we all are immigrants from former Yugoslavia)


  2. Pingback: The geopolitical unmoored: from exemplarity to deprovincialization | The Disorder Of Things

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