ichael . benson on Sun, 11 Apr 1999 16:44:47 +0000

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Syndicate: The NYT and collective responsibility

While I've taken good note of Sally Jane Norman's recent awesome 
"some fucking nightmare scrapbook" posting, I'm also taking the risk 
of sending a mail that references the "ultimate mortal urgency" 
of the messages being sent at present. I'm doing it with at least the 
intention of attempting the critical awareness that she identifies as 
a long-term hallmark of the syndicate list. I understand the 
point being made about the danger that this community could "simply 
let itself get taken over by another as a function of external 
events." I for one wouldn't want to contribute to the feeling by 
others that they've come to the wrong place, especially as my 
postings here were quite minimal over the last few years. I sometimes 
think that maybe the solution is not to write on this topic, which 
after all is quite different than the (I suppose statistically 
definable) larger aggregate concerns more typical, traditionally, of 
syndicate. But then again, those external nightmarish events are in 
fact happening, and would inevitably impact, one way or the other; so 
I wonder how to address that in a way more typical of syndicate 
topography, so to speak. Not that this is what is being 
requested by SJN, exactly... Anyway, apologies in advance to all who 
would rather hear less about this topic. Here goes:

If I would have to chose one thing that bothers me about the 
generally, but not exclusively, Serbian-origin e-mails filling this 
list over the last weeks --- yes, from my safe, distant position at 
the *other* end of ex-Yugoslavia, the un-bombed end -- it's that the 
plight of the Kosovar Albanians almost never comes up. When it does 
it's frequently, for example, to accuse "them" (all of them? Some of 
them? It's apparently not relevant) of "terrorism."  Well, one man's 
terrorist, of course, is another's freedom fighter, and the prolific 
Mr. Markovic, who professes not to have taken sides in this conflict, 
feels free to post a twelve-year-old NY Times article in support of 
his thesis (I assume) that the Kosovars deserve what they're getting. 
He also denies that what they're getting is real; it must be an 
exaggeration. It's impossible that this number could have been 
expelled from their homes, he says, because that's almost the entire 
number of Albanians that live(d) in Kosovo. (Yes -- suspicious how 
those numbers seem to match up, isn't it?) Westerners from as far 
away as California take him up on these views; this is because, 
a-priori, any use of Western military force must be considered evil, 
and any statement from NATO must be stuffed with lies. 

Well, let's assume that "war is evil" -- hard to disagree there 
-- and that NATO doesn't always tell god's honest truth. Personally, 
I'm shocked -- shocked -- to discover these things, but I still 
suppose I'm not alone in seeing a certain double standard at play 
here, in which that same writer probably wouldn't hesitate to say 
that the New York Times is of course an organ of the establishment 
(to use a no-longer-fashonable 1960's phrase), a mouthpiece of the 
duplicitious Pentagon, etc etc., if the views of the paper don't 
coincide with the views of the writer. But if the paper's decade-old 
report can be seen to justify the Serbian onslaught against the 
entire civilian population of Kosovar Albanians, it's of course used 
as truthful evidence, provided to the readers of this list with a 
kind of spicing of knowing cynicism about the double-standards of the 
western media in general.

All of this serves as a preface a piece in today's Times by 
Michael Kaufman which I'm attaching below. I don't expect it to 
change many minds, just as I don't expect people to be sanguine and 
objective when buildings around them are being destroyed from the air 
by bombs. But I would hope that the implications of the story be 
at least *considered* in Serbia, and not just rejected immediately as 
more lies, slander, and propaganda. I would like to submit the 
idea that both of these stories -- the one forwarded by Markovic, and 
the one I'm attaching below -- have substantial elements of truth to 
them. But does the truth of story "A" justify the mass expulsion of 
close to two million people from their homes? Does it justify the 
attitude captured, with a certain uncomfortable accuracy, in story 
"B"? It's an interesting question.

And I would add that, simply by virtue of it's distance in time, the 
twelve year old report doesn't include the story of ten years of 
patient pacificism on the part of the Kosovar Albanians under Ibrahim 
Rugova's leadership. In other words, almost the entire time after 
Milosovic Serbia took direct control of the previously autonomous 
province, reducing the Albanians there to second class status in a 
kind of Balkan apartheid. My own opinion is that, as in the Warsaw 
ghetto more than fifty years ago, their uprising was a last resort, 
and a fight to preserve their dignity and humanity. (Story follows)

April 11, 1999



In view of the accumulating evidence of a genocidal
campaign unleashed against Kosovo's Albanians by Serbian
forces directed by President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, the 
conduct of ordinary Serbs is starting to attract the kinds of 
questions raised in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book, "Hitler's Willing
Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust." 

The controversial book examined how some longstanding
"eliminationist" myths within German culture predisposed
what might be thought of as normal citizens to 
accept, support and in many instances actively carry out 
Nazi policies of Jewish extermination. Those policies 
remain a benchmark of evil in this century, and there are, of course, 
great differences of scale distinguishing what happened in Germany 
from what is happening in Serbia. Nonetheless, focusing on actions of
common men and women in both places and the willingness of
many to follow murderous leads, does not, at the moment,
seem inappropriate. 

Goldhagen himself thinks that questioning the behavior of
the Serbian nation is essential. "Right now is the time when
we must ask the question of how ordinary people have acted
while it can still influence events. Those who support what
has been happening in Kosovo should be made aware that they
will be held complicit in what will most likely be the last
enormous crime of the century," said Goldhagen, a professor
of government at Harvard who is working on a study of
genocide in the last 100 years. 

Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who is also
a former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, raised a similar
point last week in an op-ed article in The New York Times: 

"Although Milosevic is the prime mover behind the murder and
agony that have filled our television screens for the better
part of a decade, he has not acted alone. He may plan the
strategy, but the Serbian people are the willing instruments
of his terror. There are, of course, many decent Serbs who
decry the violence, just as there were decent Germans under
Hitler, but that does not excuse the Serb nation for its
part in making a killing field of so much of the former

Usually, and probably rightly, issues of collective
responsibility remain taboo in polite society. Within the
pluralistic tradition, there is a reluctance to assign guilt
to all, or most, or even many citizens of an offending
state, and instead focus blame on culpable leaders. But as
Goldhagen has persuasively argued, there was a correlation
between Hitler's policies of extermination and the
willingness of a sizable German population to support such
ideas. In an escalating manner the actions of the Nazi
leader and the approval of those he led mutually reinforced
and encouraged each other. 

And while, as Eagleburger noted, there are Serbs who have
deplored the violence, a similar reverberating process has
been under way in Serbia since 1987, when Milosevic broke
Titoism's major precept of never discussing ethnic tensions
in public. Instead, he openly played to Serb nationalist
sentiments, affirming widespread Serb feelings of
victimization and martyrdom stretching back centuries. 

The sense of the collusive relationship between Milosevic
and the populace that both empowers and follows him has been
evident in the tone of such Serbian public expression as has
reached beyond Yugoslav territory. Some has been in the form
of e-mail messages to media organizations, universities, and
addresses pulled out of the air, like messages placed in
bottles and thrown into the ocean. There have also been the
images of people at rock-concert rallies in Belgrade and
other cities, dancing in defiance of NATO and in support of
the man they call Slobo. According to sources in Belgrade,
the first of these rallies, which included some placards
critical of the leader, was spontaneous, but later ones were
organized and criticism disappeared. 

What is so striking about these expressions is how
stridently they clash with images of other people that the
world has been watching, images of people burned out of
their homes, standing in lines that have stretched for 15
miles trying to enter countries that have no room for them
or do not want them. Or images of people from many different
villages telling the same stories -- of their friends and
relatives shot and killed, of men being taken away to places
unknown. All of this is happening to Albanians at the hands
of Serbs less than 200 miles from Belgrade, but given the
responses of Serbs it might as well be taking place on the
moon. Even in 1913, during a similar uprooting of Kosovars,
there were louder voices of dissent in Serbia. 

Obviously, neither Serbs nor any other people can be
expected to look much beyond their own fear and suffering
when their cities are being struck by rockets and bombs. It
is unrealistic to assume that any Serb might denounce the
Serb assault on Albanians or that any such cry inside the
country would be loud enough to be heard above the cheering
and rallying around the chants of wartime chauvinism. 

Those few media organs in Serbia that have bravely struggled
for years to maintain independence in the face of government
control have been squelched. The radio station B-92 was shut
down by police last week but even before that it reported
that it was not able to report on what was happening in
Kosovo. The journal Vreme has suddenly suspended its
previous criticism of the government. 

The images of the Albanian refugees that have been telecast
all over the world have not been carried by Serbian
television and have been seen only by those Serbians who
have dish antennas and cable service. 

Is it possible that people just don't know what is happening
to the Albanians and that therefore they bear little or no
responsibility for the support they show? Here too,
Goldhagen saw similarities with the Nazi period. "How many
Germans knew that there was a formal program of Jewish
extermination? My guess is not many, but almost all knew
that their civilization was killing Jews by the tens of

He noted that it would require a sizable force to burn
villages and set hundreds of thousands of residents to
flight and that the people carrying out such tasks all have
relatives and friends who would bring the accounts to
general attention. 

The e-mail from Serbia is characterized by an overwhelming
sense of defensiveness and unredeemed victimization. As the
correspondents denounce NATO and the United States, there is
 no sense that the rockets are a response to Serb conduct.
The Albanians, if they are mentioned at all, are referred to
as Muslims who wish to establish a base for guerrilla
terror, or narcotics traffickers, or former allies and
beneficiaries of the Ottoman Turks. As for Serbs, they are
persistently portrayed as defenders of Christianity in
Europe, heroic fighters in two world wars whose
contributions to civilization have gone unrewarded. Even
writers who identify themselves as Milosevic's opponents
show more scorn than sympathy for the Kosovar Albanians,
blaming them for keeping him in power by boycotting
elections rather than voting with the opposition. 

Many of the letters mention the sacredness of Kosovo to
Serbs and cite the battle there in 1389 at which they were
defeated by the Turks. There are far fewer references to the
more contemporary history of Serb conflicts with Croats and
Bosnians over the last eight years. For instance no one
mentions the destruction of Vukovar by Serbs in 1991 or the
massacre of Bosnian men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, an
atrocity for which the military and political leaders of the
Bosnian Serbs have been indicted. Such things appear to be
missing from the current context although there are
occasional accurate references to the Croats having waged
campaigns of ethnic cleansing that chased Serbs into flight.

But where does patriotism end and complicity in war crimes
begin? Surely there is a difference between people who are
chanting "Slobo, Slobo" and those who are burning homes,
separating wives and husbands, and shooting civilians. 

Aryeh Neier, the president of the Open Society Institute and
the author of "War Crimes, Brutality, Genocide, Terror and
the Struggle for Justice," argues that in recent wars like
those in Rwanda and Bosnia, there was a greater degree of
criminal responsibility on the part of ordinary citizens
than was the case in Nazi Germany. 

With the Nazis, he pointed out, the killing was highly
bureaucratized, and the victims were generally unknown to
those who killed them. In Rwanda and Bosnia, he said, many
of the perpetrators knew the victims, often having lived
with them, gone to school with them and in some cases
married into their families. In both places, Neier said,
because of the way people were killed, there were almost as
many killers as victims. 

As for Kosovo, he said there was insufficient information to
determine what was happening or how to apportion

In Tirana, the Albanian capital, there lives an Albanian
writer named Fatos Lubunja, who under the regime of the late
dictator Enver Hoxa spent 17 years in prison. Now he edits
an intellectual journal and monitors human rights abuses. In
a message to a friend he traced many instances of Serb
attacks on Albanians, dating from expulsion in 1878 when
Milan Obrenovic, a Serbian king, rallied his countrymen with
the words, "The more Albanians you kick out of our land the
greater patriots you will be." Lubunja cited ethnic
cleansing campaigns of 1913 and 1920, and then he addressed
the questions that Goldhagen raised in his book. 

He was, he said, suspicious of judgments based on
assumptions that people inevitably repeat the conduct of
their ancestors. "But if we can speak of collective guilt, I
think we have to consider a long historical process of
manipulation; all those politicians, historians, writers,
teachers, who have created and nourished some dangerous
myths, have manipulated history and, in the end, created
those closed-minded horrible human beings who are ready to
kill the others." 

Michael Benson  <michael.benson@pristop.si>
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