Today is a great day to be alive. This morning’s newspaper greeted me with the news that Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs who incited the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s, has been arrested and will be brought to the Hague to face trial for war crimes. Justice has moved slowly in Serbia, but she made a great leap forward with this arrest.
Karadzic is charged specifically with ordering the murder of 8,000 defenseless men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in 1995. This had been a United Nations’ safe haven to which the men and boys had fled but Karadzic ordered his troops to ignore the U.N.’s peacekeepers who were easily overwhelmed, operating under no-shoot orders. It was one of the lowest points in the history of the U.N. and led to the introduction of NATO forces which could operate under more aggressive rules of engagement. There is no doubt that Karadzic is guilty of mass murder in the atrocity.
Still, there seems to me to be a different and equally grave crime that Karadzic committed, one he can never be charged with except before the bar of history. He destroyed Sarajevo as a model of pluralism and tolerance. Karadzic was a psychologist, not a military man, and he fiendishly convinced his own people, and then much of the rest of the world, that Bosnia was a place of profound and powerful ethnic hatreds, ancient in lineage and vicious in contemporary application. He was right about the ancientness of the hatreds, but he deceived the world about hate’s more recent vintage: Those hatreds had been buried, if not in some of the more rural areas, at least in Sarajevo. Karadzic reinvented hatred and gave it new life in Bosnia.
Sarajevo had the highest inter-ethnic marriage rates in Europe before the war. The 1994 Olympic 4-man bobsledding team from Bosnia consisted of two Muslims, one Croat and one Serb, to expose the myth of “ethnic hatred.” The Bosnian general tasked with defending Sarajevo at the beginning of the war was married to a Serb woman. And so on. This is what Karadzic destroyed, the belief that human dignity trumps human provenance, that there is something more important to know about a man than who his grandfather was, that we are human beings before we are Bosnians, Serbs or Croats.
All this happened in the same century and the same continent as the Holocaust. If the U.N.’s procedures were complicit in the massacre at Srebrenica, all of us in the West who lazily bought into the myth of ancient hatreds to justify our non-intervention are complicit in Karadzic’s greater crime: In the heart of Europe, he demonstrated that it was still possible to convince people to commit genocide.
Pope John Paul II’s was a lonely voice calling for more robust efforts to stop the genocide early in the war. Perhaps, the late Holy Father’s concerns were rooted in the fact that his birthplace in Wadowice, Poland is not far from the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Never forget” has become the clichéd, appropriate response to the Holocaust but Radovan Karadzic exposed the ugly truth that we in the West did forget when it mattered. He will stand alone in the dock at the Hague, but the conscience of the West will be standing with him as well. How many of us have any idea what is going on in Bosnia today? When was the last time you saw mention of Sarajevo in a newspaper? We in the West do forget, especially when we have “Dancing With the Stars” and “American Idol” to watch. Superficiality comes at a price. Karadzic will pay a price for his crimes. Will we? Today, we can celebrate his arrest but tonight we must teach our children about what he did and what we did not do.
Michael Sean Winters