Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [14]


Passive Violence and False Humanitarianism

"Western policy makers also manipulated the language of pacifism to justify an arms embargo against the Bosnians while refusing to use force to help them."

This is well-known to any reasonably informed observers of the Bosnian war; Sells notes dryly that the same Western governments engaged in and authorized arms sales to countries all over the world. Furthermore, he rightly notes that those same governments had

"...a moral and legal duty to uphold Article 51 of the UN Charter guaranteeing the right of a nation to defend itself, as well as the 1948 Geneva Convention requiring all signatory nations not only to prevent genocide but to punish it. By refusing either to allow the Bosnians to defend themselves or to use NATO power to defend them, these leaders engaged in a form of passive violence, setting the parameters within which the killing could be and was carried out with impunity."

The outrage that informed such books as David Rieff's Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West was primarily fueled by similar observations. The slightly condescending indifference towards the practical and moral implications of this faux pacifism. Sells notes that most Western churches and religious groups were complicit in this campaign as well.

The catastrophic consequences of what Sells aptly terms "passive humanitarianism"--struggling mightily to get food to civilians while leaving them at the mercy of their heavily armed tormentors--is also discussed. And Sells briefly mentions a couple of infamous incidents--the use of Muslim rape camp slaves by UN officials, and the cooperation between UN peacekeepers transporting Dr. Hakija Turajlic and his murderers.

Moral Equalizing

I doubt any readers of this blog will need a refresher course on the moral equalizing ("There are no saints in this war"; "All sides share some of the blame") frequently indulged in my Western pundits and politicians in their never-ending efforts to avoid their moral and legal responsibilities. The list of incidents and statements Sells includes is damning but hardly comprehensive--Stoltenberg repeating the Serb nationalist line that Muslims were "really" Serbs; Owen claiming that 60% of pre-war Bosnia "belonged" to "the Serbs"; Susan Woodwards pseudo-objective claims that the entire conflict was due to impersonal factors and and organizational breakdowns; and so on. And of course Peter Brock's Foreign Policy article, which gave Bosnian revisionist an actual article in an actual, reputable mainstream publication which to cite ad nauseam.

National Interests

Sells notes that many Western leaders made the Kissingeresque realpolitik claim that the USA and other NATO members had no "national interest" in Bosnia. He notes how international indifference to the Palestinian problem in the wake of the 1947 war still haunts us today; he also argues that indifference in Bosnia most likely emboldened Hutu extremists in Rwanda (although, of course, the "realists" would most likely respond that we had no national interests in Rwanda, either). He also points out that indifference to the plight of Bosnia's Muslims almost certainly lent credibility to Islamist and jihadist claims about Western hostility to Islam and Muslims. And what is the cost of allowing religious violence to succeed?

He closes with an over-reaching claim that some arms-producing nations might actually welcome the instability that acquiescence in Bosnia's destruction might unleash. This smacks too much of paranoia and conspiracy theories for my taste; I would have preferred for Sells to have left this paragraph out of the final draft.

Not Two Cents

The title of this final section comes from Thomas Friedman's callous and stupid comment "I don't give two cents about Bosnia. Not two cents. The people there have brought on their own troubles." Sells' verdict on this statment is concise and accurate:

"It marks the logical end of moral equalizing, the equating of the victim and the perpetrator and the devaluing of both."

Sells notes that Friedman was only stating in bald terms what many in the West were implying with comments about "Let them keep on killing one another and the problem will solve itself." Sells' argues that the solution to such moral vacuousness is to replace the general with the specific, to give the suffering a human face, such as the famous picture of the young Bosnian woman who hung herself after the fall of Srebrenica. That picture was cited by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had been against US involvement in the region. As Sells puts it:

"It was what the picture left unsaid that allowed the senator to look beyond the linguistic masks of "warring factions" and "guilt on all sides" to the reality that this young woman was most likely not warring, not guilty, not an ancient antagonist or hater, and that her act was "not the act of someone who had the ability to fight in self-defense." "

Sells concludes by noting that it is difficult to make moral distinctions in a religious genocide since so much of our moral thinking is grounded in religious teachings to begin with. Religious leaders and teachers, he concludes, have an obligation to

"...better understand and more clearly explain the full humanity of those who embrace other religions and the variety and richness within other traditions. Another response is to begin with a basic premise--that needless, willfully inflicted human suffering cannot and should not be explained away."

How sad that after thousands of years of organized religion, such simple and fundamentally decent proposals still need to be put forward.


This concludes Chapter Six. In my next post, I will consider the final chapter.

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