Talk of the Devil
Parola del diavolo.

April 24, 2003
Are dictators mad geniuses?
Two new books suggest that demented world leaders like Saddam, Idi Amin and Baby Doc Duvalier might be more like that cranky guy in the next cubicle than Hannibal Lecter.
By Laura Miller
When it comes to villains, who doesn't prefer a shameless fiend to a whining shirker? Milton's Satan, proclaiming that it is "better to reign in hell than serve in heav'n," or Iago, crowing over an opportunity for "double knavery," may be damnable, but their nihilistic bravado thrills us in a way that the plodding of an Adolf Eichmann cannot. Conscious, gleeful, unrepentant wickedness seems to crop up more often in fiction than in reality, though. When Hannah Arendt wrote of the "banality of evil" in "Eichmann in Jerusalem," she meant that it was precisely Eichmann's lack of imagination that made him capable of engineering the Holocaust, not the presence of some extraordinary malevolence.

But Eichmann was a middleman; what of the guys at the top, the strongmen or fanatics -- such as, for example, the Iraqi president recently deposed by the United States -- who give the horrific orders their underlings dutifully obey? Surely the buck stops somewhere, and when that buck is covered with blood, you find a towering monster standing there, dripping in gore to the elbows and cackling like Lex Luthor over the sheer, unadulterated badness of his own bad self, right?

Curiosity about just this question inspired Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio to pursue the seven deposed dictators he interviews in "Talk of the Devil." They include Idi Amin, Jan-Bedel Bokassa, Wojciech Jaruzelski, Nexhmije Hoxha, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, Mengistu Haile Mariam and Mira Markovic (wife of Slobadan Milosevic), who once ruled, respectively, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Poland, Albania, Haiti, Ethiopia and Yugoslavia. The roots of this slender volume lie in two newspaper clippings that Orizio carried around in his wallet for years, both referring to "personalities accused of cannibalism" (Amin and Bokassa). Eventually he made a project of tracking down "fallen tyrants," asking, "How does a one-time dictator, whom the history books describe as ruthless, immoral and power-crazed, grow old? What does he tell his children and grandchildren about himself? What does he tell himself?"

Along the same lines, Jerrold Post and fellow contributors to the new volume he has edited, "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," try to psych out heads of state, categorizing them according to various personality types and dissecting their actions. As a journalist, Orizio has no greater obligation than to amuse and inform, but Post and company are scientists specializing in political psychology. Orizio is just curious; Post et al. advise leaders on how their allies and adversaries might behave in negotiations or under duress. They work at institutions like the Center for the Analysis of Personality and Political Behavior, which Post founded.