Talking Justice: Passing Judgment on Scott Turow’s Testimony

Talking Justice: Passing Judgment on Scott Turow’s Testimony

Scott Turow is one of America’s best-known authors of legal thrillers, set—until now—in fictional Kindle County, located somewhere in the Midwest. But in his latest book, Testimony, Turow has taken a fictional trip, traveling to The Hague and Bosnia to tell the story of a middle-aged American lawyer who takes up the chance to serve as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, on a case involving an alleged atrocity against a Roma community in Bosnia.

But how does his fictional account of the workings of the International Criminal Court, seen through the eyes of hero Bill ten Boom, stack up against the real thing?

In this special edition of Talking Justice, we bring you a discussion of Testimony between our regular host Jim Goldston and Binaifer Nowrojee, head of Open Society Foundations’ Asia Pacific region. Both are lawyers. Both have experience of the workings of international justice. Listen to the podcast to hear their verdict.

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Transcript

Show transcript 

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

Welcome to this edition of Talking Justice, the monthly podcast from the Open Society Foundations where we discuss stories about human rights and justice from around the world. I’m Jonathan Birchall, standing in for our usual presenter, Jim Goldston. And for this, our very first ever books edition, Jim is on the other side of the microphone, along with Binaifer Nowrojee, head of our Asia region. And on the table in front of us is a copy of Testimony, the latest offering from one of America’s most successful writers of legal thrillers, Scott Turow. Turow launched his career in 1977 with One L, a satire about the first year at Harvard Law School. And, up to now, his thrillers have been based around the legal life of a mythical Kindle County, a place in the American Midwest that sounds very much like Chicago.

The hero of Testimony, Bill ten Boom, is also from Kindle County. He’s a former U.S. prosecutor turned private lawyer, just divorced, who gets appointed as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, assigned to a case that involves claims of mass murder of a community of Roma that supposedly took place in Bosnia in 2004 close to the U.S. military bases around the city of Tusla.

Jim and Bin make perhaps the perfect critical bench for assessing Mister Turow’s latest work. Both of them went to Harvard Law, as he did, and Jim’s career included a spell at The Hague, helping to set up the office of the prosecutor there. He went on to head litigation at the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre.

And Bin, a Kenyan, headed our office in Nairobi at a time when the ICC investigation into post-election violence in Kenya led to the unsuccessful prosecutions of people including the current president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta. Binaifer has also worked extensively on the prosecution of sexual violence under international law and testified as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

So, these two people know from criminal justice, as they say in New York, perhaps. But let’s start with Jim. Jim, you go to the ICC on a pretty regular basis. You’ve seen it over the last 15 years developing. How do you think Scott Turow succeeds in getting the atmosphere of the court?

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

So, the book is a realistic rendering of some of the ICC’s challenges, the fact that it is so overly bureaucratic, compared to a national prosecutor’s office, the fact that it depends on everybody to get anything done, and it is relatively powerless without cooperation from states.

And yet, it’s a novel, so it’s a wonderful thriller. And it’s for largely an American audience. Not entirely, but it’s written from an American perspective, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the ICC’s engagement with American actors is highlighted in a way that at least hasn’t been revealed in prior cases to the public so far.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

But did you like it as a book?

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

I thought it was a very interesting book. It certainly compelled me. Some of the best parts were just the dialogue between the prosecutor and his chief investigator, Goose.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

Who is a Belgian, right? A heavy-drinking Belgian? A Flemish Belgian.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Right. And the prosecutor and the American general, who is caught up in some of the facts, and the prosecutor and the American spy who also is caught up in some of the fact, and the prosecutor’s various love interests, which are fascinating.

I have to say, although the book purports to address, to some extent, the situation of the Roma. It is, I think, notably, unfortunate that there’s really no well-developed Roma character in the book. The Roma are largely objects—objects of sympathy, objects of manipulation, but objects.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

So Binaifer, what do you think from your perspective as somebody who is in Kenya and presumably saw something of the ICC investigation and the way that it developed there. Did this ring true to you?

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

I think, overall, the book—what you see, are parts of the court entering in and out of the dialogue that discusses that happened, and war and how it plays out. And you realize, ultimately, that in post-conflict situations, justice mechanisms play a small part. And, actually, the complexity of a conflict is so much in that there’s just no good and bad.

The lines all blur. There are sort of opportunists who were good and who become bad. There’s middle men who get sucked in. There’s victims who move around and ultimately in some way become part. There’s internationals who come in as the kind of on the white horse, but ultimately become part of the playbook. And so by the time the ICC comes in, there’s a complexity to the place that requires a kind of depth of understanding.

And then what you see in this book, which I thought was very accurate, is the staff that get attracted to these courts and their motivations and how they end up there, and the various nationalities and individual motivations. And the main character is having his own mid-life crisis.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

His mid-life crisis after his divorce

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

And sort of shows up there, not because of any sort of real commitment to international justice. But that’s not uncommon at these courts. And so you think these are going to be the best courts in the world with the best lawyers in the world, and that’s actually not the case.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

But I think that the really important point that Bin makes that the book— and I hadn’t actually appreciated that until you just said that, but it’s so true—the book illustrates how limited a contribution an institution like the ICC can make. It’s an important contribution, but the facts of the book, the greatest contribution the prosecutor makes, ultimately, is through his human physical capacity at a particular climactic moment in the book when he’s able to actually seize a firearm.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

Seize the moment.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And the ultimate resolution of the tale, without giving anything away, is a story of a personal reconstruction and a personal truth rather than judicial truth. So I think, whether intentionally or not, it’s kind of illustrating the limited role of justice institutions. And, ultimately, the narrative, I think, is affirming the important role that justice institutions play, but the very limited one in these incredibly complex historical and political situations.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

I found that as I read it, I thought the book got better and that the presentation of the issues became more interestingly complex. To begin with, I thought it was going to use the court as you could argue, he was using the Roma almost as a prop for the story to unfold. But at that sort of level of reality turning out to be much more complex.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

There’s a beautiful quote, actually, that I thought summed it up that is just a short one. Basically, somebody’s talking to this lawyer and says, ‘History is made by the victors. You know that, do you. Yes, I finally answered. So is justice. How many of the war criminals your court prosecutes were the winners in the wars they were fighting? The Protestant West, the Americans call me a criminal, so I’m a criminal. That’s a matter of power, not justice. The only true war crime is losing.‘ And I think that’s so accurate how it becomes victor’s justice in so many ways at the moment.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

So it’s a bit of a pessimistic interpretation of the overall thrust of the book.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

Not really, but it goes back to Jim’s point. The limitations of these new institutions in the history of justice and their own evolution in order to gain strength and the many forces that are against them. For instance, the book also reveals how the American government has in so many ways undermined the prospect of international justice by exempting its troops from being in any way able to come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

And I don’t think that’s necessarily a pessimistic message about the limited role of justice institutions. I think it’s a dose of realism, and if it’s appreciated, it’s actually a foundation for actually marshalling political resources and economic resources behind these institutions to make them as meaningful as they can be. But to recognize that these problems are huge, and they take a huge constellation of efforts to try to address in some meaningful way.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

Have either of you seen any previous attempts to render the ICC in fictional form? There’s a book called The Ghost by Robert Harris, which supposedly had a British prime minister being investigated by the ICC.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

Oh, yes.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

But, I think in that case the investigation was over the alleged death of a British citizen in a CIA rendition in a single case, and it wouldn’t have even fallen under the ICC. And then, there was a TV series which went to three seasons. One season in the U.S., called Crossing Lines, where they basically put together an international investigative squad who seemed to be focusing on serial killers. So, I think your man Turow deserves a medal for at least getting the basic principles of things like complementarity right, which is kind of an achievement in a work of fiction.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

Yeah, he did well on the actual structures of the court and how it works and some of the conversations that would have happened.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

But does a deputy prosecutor actually do the kind of things that this guy does here? Do they actually go out in the field and—

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

Well, so first of all, this was a line prosecutor, a senior prosecutor, but not the deputy. There is a deputy in the book, and there is the prosecutor. And they’re basically there to review and supervise and delay things.

But, yes. Yes, prosecutors do go out in the field and go with investigators, to some extent. I think the extent to which this prosecutor, the character in the book, gets involved with characters who are part of the facts of the cases that he’s investigating probably overstates what happens in most cases for dramatic effect.

I have to say, the characters themselves that are developed are just so wonderful and vivid. The character who is responsible for doing all the logistics for the American army who gets caught in the middle of all this is just a fantastically vibrant, provocative creation.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

I find it, to a degree, that it does suffer from the U.S. thriller phenomenon of feeling a little bit two-dimensional a lot of the time. The relationships between the lead character and the women he encounters seem particularly contrived, and I felt a bit like hearing about my parents having carnal relations or something at that section.

But I don’t think he does that very well. I think he’s much better when he’s telling the story of the investigation in the field. I sort of almost found myself skipping the bits of personal narrative to get back to the action.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

I felt like the love interests were there as part of the same way you make a movie and you always have to have a love interest somewhere in there. So it was sort of stuck in in various points. I must say, in fact, I think all the characters are well-drawn, and they’re all compelling.

The one that isn’t is one of his love interests—which I think is so outrageous and contrived that you wonder if it’s even possible, even though you do find the oddest of characters at the ICC—I thought this one was quite a stretch.

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

But it’s a great role for a movie that’s coming out.

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

Yeah.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

How do you think this will go down at the ICC? Do you think they’ll think this is a great way to celebrate our 15th anniversary, a best-selling book in the United States?

JAMES A. GOLDSTON:

I think, frankly, any mention of the ICC that’s not an unabashed attack is a good thing for the ICC. And bringing this court, which is little known to most American and other readers, to life in a way, it, is a positive thing. And the fact that people may be prompted to have discussions about the extent to which it reflects reality or not, that’s all to the good.

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

And, Binaifer, would you recommend this to a non-American reader?

BINAIFER NOWROJEE:

Oh, absolutely. It’s a page turner for anybody who likes a good thriller. And the fact that it’s got some underlying messages about international justice and the idea of justice, and, again, there’s just a short quote that stuck out for me. And at the end of it, even with all the problems that this character has and the court has, et cetera, at the end he says, ‘Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting the victims be heard. The consequences are essential. People can’t believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make wrongs right. Allowing the slaughter of 400 innocents to go unpunished demeans the lives that each of us lead. It’s that simple.’

JONATHAN BIRCHALL:

And a good place to end. Thank you very much Binaifer and Jim for joining me today. We’ve been talking about Testimony, a novel by Scott Turow, published by Grand Central Publishing of New York and Boston. I’m Jonathan Birchall. You’ve been listening to Talking Justice, the monthly podcast about justice and human rights around the world brought to you by the Open Society Foundations.

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