Notes From the Margins…

Skulls, Bones and Human rights

  • January 26, 2012
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I’m a big fan of the Israeli architect and writer Eyal Weizman.  His book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso 2007) is a brilliant and revelatory account of the different ways in which Israel has used physical space to  dominate and undermine the Palestinians and enhance its control of the Occupied Territories.

So I was naturally drawn to an essay that Weizman co-authored with Thomas Keenan in the latest issue of Cabinet, the New York-based art and culture magazine,  devoted to the subject of forensics.    It doesn’t disappoint.    Entitled ‘Mengele’s Skull’  Keenan and Weizman’s essay traces the relationship between forensic anthropology and human rights, with an account of the 1985 exhumation of Joseph Mengele as its starting point.

The authors see the exhumation and the subsequent confirmation of Mengele’s identity as the beginning of a new era in which war-crimes investigations were increasingly based on ‘things’ and the forensic remains of victims rather than the testimonies of living survivors, as was the case during the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem.   In their view

If the trial of Eichmann indeed marks the beginning of the era of the witness, we would suggest that the exhumation of a body thought to be that of Mengele in June 1985 signals the inauguration of an era of forensics in human rights and international criminal justice.

The authors go on to argue that:

If things have begun to speak in the context of war-crimes investigation and human rights, it is not simply that we have acquired better listening skills, or that the forums of discussion have been liberally enlarged. The very entry of bones and other things into these forums has changed the meanings and the practices of discussion themselves. In fact, the entry of non-humans into the field of human rights has transformed it.

This case is made through a step-by-step analysis of the techniques used to confirm the identify of the skull of the ‘Angel of Death’ in Sao Paolo.    These included forensic anthropology (the study of human remains, skull shape and size, bone structure, dentistry etc), handwriting analysis and an innovative  video-imaging process known as ‘face-skull superimposition’ in which photographs of Mengele were superimposed over the skull to establish that it ‘fitted’.      

Until I read this essay I wasn’t aware of the American forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who was one of the members of the team that examined Mengele’s skull.



At the time Snow had just begun training the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) in the exhumations of the ‘disappeared’ during the military junta’s ‘dirty war’.  These investigations helped prosecutors convict  a number of the military officers who ordered these killings, and the Argentine  Forensics team has since gone to carry out similar investigations in many different countries, including East Timor, El Salvador and Bosnia.

As I wrote the other week, it was this team that exhumed the victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre as part of the UN investigating team that went to El Salvador in 1993.

On the strength of this essay, I was keen to find out more about Snow, and I’ve just finished Witnesses from the Grave: the Stories Bones Tell (Little & Brown 1991) a fascinating and compelling  account of his life and work by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover.   Born in 1928, Snow has spent much of his professional life examining the concealed remains of men, women and children who died violently and often atrociously, and helping bring their killers to justice.

Before becoming involved in human rights investigations, he played a key role in a number of high-profile criminal cases in the United States, including the trial of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy.   For me the most powerful and moving section of the book concerns his work in  Argentina,  where he transformed a group of raw and inexperienced students into tenacious investigators into one of the worst episodes of state terrorism in their country’s history.

The whisky-drinking, poetry-loving Snow comes over as a likeable and admirable character, whose essential ethos was summed up in a 1985 speech that he gave to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) the role of forensic anthropologists in human rights investigations.  Snow  is a big fan of Federico Garcia Lorca, and in his speech he cites Lorca’s 1936 killing by Francoists as an example of ‘state murder’, in words that are worth repeating:

Of all the forms of murder, none is more monstrous than that committed by a state against his own citizens.   And of all murder victims, those of the state are the most helpless and vulnerable since the very entity to which they have entrusted their lives and safety becomes their killer.   When the state murders, the crime is planned by powerful men.   They use the same cold rationality and administrative efficiency that they might bring to the decision to wage a campaign to eradicate a particularly obnoxious agricultural pest.

That is indeed, how it is.   And as Snow points out, ‘the homicidal state’ often behaves in ways that are not that different from ‘the solitary killer’, except,  as he points out

The great mass murders of our time have accounted for no more than a few hundred victims.  In contrast, states that have chosen to murder their own citizens can usually count their victims by the carload lot.   As for motive, the state has no peers, for it will kill its victim for a careless word, a fleeting thought, or even a poem.

Snow made that speech just before going to Argentina to begin the work that would help shatter the culture of impunity that the military Junta believed would protect them forever.  In doing so he and his young team rendered a huge service, not just to Argentine society, but to humanity.  Because even the most viciously predatory states  like to conceal the evidence of their crimes in an attempt to hide them not just from the scrutiny of the present – but also from the future.

There was a time when this could be done in the belief that nature would take its course and reduce their victims to anonymous heaps of bones, so that even if they were discovered they would have no names or identities.   Today that is no longer possible.  As Joyce and Silver point out, thanks to forensic anthropology the bones of their victims have become witnesses, and the work of Snow and his team have made it that much more difficult for their killers to get away with it.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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