Conspiracy Theories, Denial, and the Coronavirus

By David Rohde is an executive editor of newyorker.com. He is the author of, most recently, “In Deep: The F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the Truth about America’s ‘Deep State.’”

Last Saturday marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Europe’s worst massacre since the Second World War. In 1995, in the final months of the war in Bosnia, eight thousand Muslim men and boys were killed in mass executions around the town of Srebrenica. In the years since, their widows and children, along with thousands of other mourners, have gathered to attend an annual ceremony honoring those deaths. It is held on July 11th, the day that the enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces and the killings began. This year, fear of the coronavirus prompted authorities to limit the gathering to several hundred people. Those who did attend wore masks.

Diplomats from around the world, as they do each year, issued solemn messages of regret for the international community’s culpability in the killings. In a humanitarian half-measure that went fatally wrong, American and European officials devised a scheme in which U.N. peacekeepers stripped Srebrenica’s Muslim defenders of their most powerful weaponry and declared the town a “United Nations-protected safe area.” Two years later, they stood by as Bosnian Serb nationalists overran the town and killed nearly every Bosnian Muslim male they captured. This year, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the remorseful messages from foreign dignitaries were pre-taped videos, including ones from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the actress Angelina Jolie. Most of the messages focussed on the growing denial of the massacres by Bosnian Serb nationalists, which reflects, in turn, the stalled effort to reunify the country, a quarter century after the killings ceased.

I covered the war in 1994 and 1995, and wrote a series of stories for the Christian Science Monitor that helped expose the killings in Srebrenica. Every five years, I’ve tried to return for the commemoration. Over time, I’ve listened as, despite mounting evidence, Serb nationalists have increasingly denied what occurred. On my most recent visit, in 2015, they flatly dismissed the findings of the largest DNA-identification project in the world, which has matched the remains of 6,909 men with their surviving relatives. Several hundred other men who went missing have never been found. A U.N. war-crimes tribunal has exhaustively documented the killings, exhuming mass graves, establishing the Bosnian Serb military chain of command during the executions, and ruling, in 2004, that they constitute genocide—acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.

On my last visit, in otherwise genial conversations, Serb civilians told me fantastical conspiracy theories. The Bosnian Muslims listed as dead in the town’s graveyard, where the remains of six thousand people are buried, were really still alive and living in Germany, a woman told me. Muslims had stolen the bodies of Serbs and falsely declared them massacre victims, a man said. Others called the reports of eight thousand dead a “farce,” a “circus,” and “make believe.”

Such statements were disappointing but not surprising. During the war, Serb nationalist leaders had spread conspiracy theories in order to maintain popular support for both the conflict and their hold on power. At the time, I blamed the embrace of denialism on the trauma that people experience in wartime. Telling the big lie works, I thought, when a population fears for its safety. A diplomat based in Bosnia who asked not to be named told me that, decades after the war’s end, corrupt nationalist leaders and the media outlets they control have been perpetuating the rhetoric of mistrust and fear in the country, particularly before elections. The glorification of convicted war criminals, the denial of genocide and war crimes, and bitter disputes around conflicting commemorations all create an environment of perpetual division that is gradually becoming the norm.

Last year, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite Presidency, called the Srebrenica genocide “a fabricated myth.” In 2016, he named a student dormitory in a Serb-dominated town for the wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, after the U.N. tribunal had convicted him of genocide. Last month, Bosnian Serbs painted a mural of Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb Army chief, whose forces carried out the Srebrenica killings, on the wall of a primary school. Mladić, too, was convicted of genocide, in 2017. Last month, Judge Carmel Agius, the president of the U.N. war-crimes court, told Reuters that Bosnian Serb officials had launched a systematic effort to teach schoolchildren that the Srebrenica genocide never occurred. “What you find is a humongous effort on the part of the authorities to indoctrinate their children with their own version of the events,” Agius said. Some Bosnian Serb leaders have even begun staging celebrations of “the 1995 liberation of Srebrenica” on the anniversary of the killings.

The denial has spread internationally as well, with left- and right-wing online commentators questioning the extent of the killings. Last year, the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke, who has publicly questioned the number of killings in Srebrenica. After travelling in the former Yugoslavia after the war, Handke published a series of essays, including one in which he wrote, “I want to ask how such a massacre is to be explained, carried out.” In 2006, he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of Slobodan Milosević, the wartime President of Serbia, who armed and aided the Bosnian Serb forces.

At Saturday’s ceremony, Šefik Džaferović, the Bosnian Muslim member of the tripartite Presidency, urged the international community to help combat the false claims. “I am calling on our friends from around the world to show, not just with words but also with actions, that they will not accept the denial of genocide and celebration of its perpetrators,” he said. “The Srebrenica genocide is being denied just as systematically and meticulously as it was executed in 1995.”

The issues of denialism and historical revisionism took on new meaning as I watched the commemoration from the United States, a country so divided and dysfunctional that it is unable to effectively respond to the coronavirus. Like most Americans, I had hoped that, at this point in our history, the successful use of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and denialism for significant political gain was no longer viable. I assumed, arrogantly, that our nation’s democratic institutions, as well as its free press, would reject, expose, and discredit false claims. Instead, in recent years, a willingness to distort basic facts, the rise of partisan media outlets, and the explosion of false information online has made denialism politically profitable in the U.S. As a pandemic, protests for racial justice, and a Presidential race unfold across the country, an extraordinary level of confusion and division has beset the country. Basic tenets of American governance, from trusting nonpartisan experts to election results, are under assault. Part of the problem is President Trump’s embrace of such tactics, but it is foolish to ignore the distrust, institutional decay, and alienation that contribute to his appeal.

I had told myself that, if a national calamity befell the United States, its leaders and institutions would rise to the challenge. Instead, today, more than a hundred and thirty thousand Americans are dead of the coronavirus—a toll larger, in fact, than the hundred thousand who perished in the war in Bosnia. The virus has also been far deadlier in the U.S., with forty-two deaths per hundred thousand cases, six times the rate of seven per hundred thousand in Bosnia.