Adam Rosenblatt's Digging for the Disappeared is a rare and moving work of scholarship. His study of what he calls the “darkened corner of human rights practice” is critical in the very best and most lasting of ways. In bringing a variety of methodological tools to bear on the history, practices, and dilemmas of forensic science after mass atrocity, his book reveals new, even radically new, possibilities for reconciling the tensions between the different constituencies that are deeply involved with investigation, justice-seeking, meaning-making, and politics after gross human rights violations. At the same time, Rosenblatt is himself deeply embedded in the fiber of the book, not only as a scholar, but as someone whose life history and research experiences in the field shape his incisive analytics into a broader ethics of engagement. This ethics is expressed in Rosenblatt’s clear and jargon-free writing; in the questions he feels compelled to pursue; and, ultimately, in the lingering, even haunting, effect that the book has on the reader.
As Rosenblatt argues, the interdisciplinary yet immersive account he develops is a necessary orientation for telling the story of how a “small scientific revolution”—the use of innovative scientific techniques to sift facts from the painful complexity of mass atrocity and its aftermath—became a global project. His field experiences with the Physicians for Human Rights, which played a central role in the global development of forensic human rights investigations gave him a unique vantage point from which to observe the coalescing of what he describes as the four moral principles that distinguish this “networked field” from all others. The observation that science is the practice of a particular, and privileged, form of truth has been made before. But in Rosenblatt’s hands, we are shown how this practice is shaken when it confronts collective grief, spiritual insistence, and the culturally diverse practices of death. Second, his insider’s perspective as a “critically generous” researcher opens up the tight world of forensic investigations and demonstrates that practitioners bring a much-needed insistence on political autonomy to often tragically politicized processes. Third, Rosenblatt’s groundbreaking synthesis reveals the surprising fact that forensic human rights investigators are, in their own way, and in quite different terms, as concerned with the universalist implications of their work as the humanitarian political and legal activists against whom their scientific investigations have been seen to starkly contrast. And finally, the book shows how forensic investigations after mass atrocity are focused on victims in elemental, immediate, and absolutely unique ways. It is one thing to file a case in court seeking accountability for victims of atrocity. It is quite another to spend hours and days amongst the decaying remains of the victims themselves in a single-minded quest to establish a factual record of perpetration and consequence that cannot be credibly refuted.
And it is here, when Digging for the Disappeared takes up the seemingly obvious, but often overlooked, question of the function, meaning, and materiality of dead victims that Rosenblatt’s study transcends the genre of academic analysis to takes its place among literature that similarly teaches us new ways to understand and care about the mortality of those amongst us who have been broken, violated, tortured, thrown away. In many ways, Rosenblatt’s book does for human rights what Drew Gilpin Faust’s elegiac and award-winning This Republic of Suffering did for our understanding of the American Civil War. Like Faust, Rosenblatt too reveals the troubling yet often denied fact that the dead are at the center of history—in this case, at the center of histories of mass violence. But in many ways Rosenblatt goes further than Faust. Because the dead victims of mass atrocities are still with us, just under our feet, they continue to speak to us if we are only willing to listen. And if we listen, if we go to them and treat them with the care they were denied in life, we make them, in Rosenblatt’s words, “precious again.”