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PUBLIC AFFAIRS May 2007 • Anthropology News

the Plaza de Mayo mobilized to recover their

kidnapped grandchildren, born in captivi-
ty to their disappeared daughters and sons.
Working with international scientists, the
Grandmothers were the first group worldwide
PUBLIC AFFAIRS to organize around genetic identification tech-
nologies to prove relatedness in the absence of
the parental generation.
VIEWS ON POLICY In over two decades of transitional justice, and
despite tremendous scientific advancements, only
DNA Identification 85 of the 600 missing grandchildren have been
identified. This failure of a seemingly straight-
tive resolution to profound moral dilemmas of forward scientific test suggests how questions of
Checking Expectations of Truth truth and justice. individual identity, notions of family and state
and Justice Yet the use of genetic testing to resolve missing accountability are integral to the technology itself.
persons cases has a history that extends far beyond Among activists, DNA identification speaks of
LINDSAY A SMITH the US. In places as distant as Argentina and for- true identity; in the courtroom, that same result
SARAH WAGNER mer Yugoslavia, forensic experts have incorporated proves the democratic state’s commitment to
HARVARD U DNA-based identification systems into larger proj- redress; and for the kidnapped child, now an
ects of post-conflict reparations and social recon- adult, this knowledge of biological identity often
From Tsunami-devastated nations to New struction. The results of these costly tests, however, results in the only parents she had ever known
Orleans, from El Salvador to New York, DNA have not translated into stabilizing narratives of being immediately arrested for crimes against
identification has become an important tool past violence or uncontested claims of biological humanity. Thus DNA is not a deus ex machina
in the aftermaths of disaster and conflict. Once identity expected by advocates. Its failure to act as able to provide unmitigated closure, but rather a
at the center of debates about genetic reduc- a technology of repair in such contexts suggests scientific technology incapable of answering the
tionism and racial essentialism, DNA testing that DNA testing, like other mechanisms of resto- central questions in a post-conflict society.
now serves as a standard part of international ration and reparation, is socially constituted and
responses to large-scale “missing persons” cases deeply politicized.
and as a core component of reconstruction and
repair. The hype of its reparative potential, how- Producing the “Facts”
“Truth” in the form of
ever, often exceeds or misreads the technology’s In former Yugoslavia, proponents of the DNA-
actual impact. based identification efforts have promoted the matching DNA samples
Excessive confidence in genetic identification technology as an arbiter in debates surrounding
technologies comes as no surprise, at least in
the US. Primetime shows like CSI thrive on the
numbers and types of victims of the region’s
armed conflicts during the 1990s. Samples col-
does not equal nor
public’s fascination with the seemingly magi- lected from surviving family members become
cal crime-solving powers of forensic science, another means of tabulating missing persons. guarantee justice in the
and they help construct the assumption that Only relatives of the missing, the logic goes,
DNA testing will deliver unequivocal truths would venture to dab their pin-pricked fingers minds of many surviving
in a messy world. Far from such sci-fi portray- onto bloodstain cards in asserting the disappear-
als, some American courtrooms provide juries
with special instructions about the processes of
ance of loved ones.
Bodies recovered and bone samples tested lend
families, their communities
forensic science to counter-exaggerated expec- credence to these same claims. In the case of
tations fostered by the so-called “CSI effect.” Srebrenica, the largest massacre of the Bosnian and their political leaders.
Undoubtedly, DNA has entered the mainstream war in which some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men
American lexicon, regularly cast as the defini- and boys were killed, DNA matches have identi- Lessons for the Future?
fied the remains of over 2,500 vic- As reports of mass graves periodically surface in
tims. Bosnian Muslims hold these Iraq and commentators draw parallels to past
numbers up to their Bosnian Serb conflict zones such as former Yugoslavia, expec-
and Serb counterparts, demanding tations about how best to respond to victims of
recognition of their losses. But the mass violence also arise.
increased focus on counting the If Argentina and former Yugoslavia’s DNA iden-
Srebrenica victims has led other tification efforts can provide any lessons, they
ethno-national groups to compile illustrate the need to check assumptions about
their own casualty lists. Rather the technology’s impact. While the importance
than assuaging tensions, facts and of identification to surviving families should
figures generated from the DNA be recognized, expectations of “closure” or the
technology have added grist to the potential for reconciliation are often misplaced
mill of ethno-nationalist politics if not misguided. “Truth” in the form of match-
within the region. ing DNA samples does not equal nor guarantee
justice in the minds of many surviving families,
Identifying Argentina’s their communities and their political leaders.
“Living Disappeared”
At the height of the 1976–83 Lindsay A Smith is a doctoral candidate in anthropol-
Argentine dictatorship, when ogy at Harvard University. Sarah Wagner is a lecturer
Founded in October 1977, the Association of Grandmothers of the 30,000 young adults were “dis- in anthropology at Harvard University. Both are involved
Plaza de Mayo seeks the return of children who disappeared during appeared,” a group of women in an ongoing project exploring the theme of “technolo-
Argentina’s dirty war. Photo courtesy National Security Archives known as the Grandmothers of gies of repair.”