On Educated Psychiatrists, Poetry and Genocide

Being evil, manipulative liars and cruel murderers doesn’t mean you can’t be smart or cultured. Unfortunately.

Original art by @modográfico

“‘Sjluka, is that you?’ Embarrassed, he just kept quiet behind his stocking.”

Semezdin Mehmedinovic, on recognizing that the soldier harassing him on the street was a former soccer pal in Sarajevo Blues.

Not only was he a psychiatrist, he also authored eight books, including children’s poetry, receiving a prestigious award for it. Also known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, Radovan Karadzic led the Siege of Sarajevo, a genocidal attack of Bosnian and Croatian civilians. He was a well-read psychiatrist from Columbia University where he also took poetry classes.

In a particularly disturbing sequence, documentarist Pawlikowsk films Karadzic entertaining the visit of Russian poet Eduard Limonov on Mount Trebevic, while the cruelty against Sarajevo is going on. He recites poetry before inviting his fellow writer to look through the telescopic lens of an automatic weapon and fire a round of shots at the city.

12,000 were murdered during the siege, including 1,600 children. Normal people were shot at from the mountains while going out on the street for daily chores.

At this time in history we know better than to think all crooks are ignorant. There’s the case, right around the corner, of well-educated psychiatrist, murderer and serial rapist Edmundo Chirinos, once dean of the Universidad Central de Venezuela and presidential candidate.

In the best-selling book Gomorra, Roberto Saviano tells the story of mafia boss Giuseppe Misso, who wrote a novel while serving his sentence in prison. When arrested, Misso was found holding a book of poems by Ezra Pound. Augusto La Torre, also featured in the book, was called the “psychoanalyst boss” for his love of Lacan, Freud, Jung and Gestalt theory, which he read avidly while in jail. His psychological knowledge, writes Saviano, came in handy when doing managerial tasks in the mafia, as well as showing off during his trial, where he was convicted of over forty murders.

The small controversy regarding the scuffle between Jaime Bayly and Rafael Poleo over whether ex-psychiatrist, ex-writer, ex-vice-president, ex-director of the National Electoral Council, ex-mayor, more recently Minister for the Popular Power of Communications, Jorge Rodríguez, can be called a cultivated man (culto), may seem meaningless. But it was followed up by a night of intense Twitter discussions on the meaning of Julio Borges’ kiss on Delcy Rodriguez’ cheek and diplomatic chit-chat on what appeared to be a break during the negotiation table at the Dominican Republic.

Paranoia is now part of our emotional landscape. Having no solution at hand, we could at least have someone to blame.

The wounds chavismo has inflicted on the country are monstrous and, sometimes, we need to identify the monsters. Government figures like Iris Varela, ugly in every conceivable way, seem to incarnate evil, cackling every time she opens her mouth.

To think that a chavista leader could have an ounce of refinement, or any other quality, may seem incomprehensible, considering all they have done. To concede them any grace is seen almost like an act of treason, or at least offense to the wounded.

These passions are understandable. Our wounds are still open, let’s not add insult to injury.

Semezdin Mehmedinovic, a Bosnian poet who survived the siege in Sarajevo, told an enlightening anecdote once: Semezdin met Karadzic before the war. He remembered him as a rather quiet man, keeping a low profile at poetry meetings. His writing was so inconsequential that nobody took notice of his passion for scenes of destruction. But during the siege, he sat one night listening to Karadzic’s lies on television, and all his pent-up rage came gushing out. He reached for Karadzic’s children’s poetry book (Semezdin’s son loved it), and ripped it apart, making his son cry. He realized that this was more complicated: “I started taping together the ripped pages, to calm a little boy down whose world was being destroyed by grown-ups, a fact he refused to acknowledge. My son knew the author of the book, and he couldn’t let himself believe that such a man would want to harm him.”

Frustrated with our descent into oblivion, desperate for hope, many are looking to pinpoint monsters and traitors. Paranoia is now part of our emotional landscape. Having no solution at hand, we could at least have someone to blame. Julio Borges and Rafael Poleo seem perfect for target practice, but we should be weary of such simplistic reasoning.

On one hand, we need to watch out for childish innocence, like that of Semezdin’s son, that cannot see beyond appearances. Distrust has its place. Of course we need to hold Borges and Poleo accountable, and we should avoid handing anyone empty checks, but we also need the temperance of Semezdin who, conscious of his rage, was still able to put his child’s protection before his need for revenge.

Karadzic, by the way, was at large from 1996 to 2008. He disguised himself working as a sort of new-age alternative medicine doctor, with a long beard and hippie outfit (a rather telling choice of profession), and was arrested and sentenced in 2016 to 40 years of jail for his war crimes.