I learned about gallows humor in the context of trauma surgeons who are constantly put under intense pressure in the face of life-and-death situations, and to cope sometimes make jokes that, out of context, might be a bit dark or inappropriate. I have never come close to the rigor of a 30-hour shift in an E.R., or personally been affected in any way by war crimes, but when I sat down to write about watching the International Criminal Court ("ICC") case against Bosco Ntaganda, aka "the Terminator," for 13 counts of war crimes and 5 counts of crimes against humanity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the "DRC"), my first instinct was to make an Arnold Schwarzenegger joke.
Maybe I still haven't earned the ability to use gallows humor, since, except for physically sitting a pane of glass away from Ntaganda himself, I couldn't be farther away from the conflict that occurred from 2002-2003 in the DRC and the atrocities Ntaganda allegedly committed. But I think the point of gallows humor is giving our brains a pass when faced with something too awful to comprehend. Watching the prosecution conduct its cross examination of Ntaganda this week, I learned a lot about international criminal trial procedure, but what stuck with me was an overwhelming feeling of disconnect.
Ntaganda is charged with murder, attempted murder, attacking civilians, rape, sexual slavery of civilians, pillaging, displacement of civilians, attacking protected objects, destroying the enemy's property, and rape, sexual slavery, enlistment and conscription of child soldiers. Yet after all that, there he sat calmly in a suit in front of me, answering the prosecutor: yes, Madam Prosecutor, in June 2003 I requested a minibus to go to Mongbwalu. It is unfathomable to me how a person could do such evil and then ask for a minibus instead of a pickup, could have a wife, could get out of bed and dressed in the morning.
So instead of trying to comprehend, or even worse express in writing, Ntaganda's trial, I thought instead I could hide behind a '90s robot movie. The prosecutors, judges, and staff at the ICC aren't hiding though. They were brilliant, professional, and composed, as I'm sure they are day in and day out. I appreciate and respect their dedication to justice immensely.