Serb Vulgarians: Compare, Equate and Rage Again

Our diplomats can’t say it. Our politicians feel embarrassed saying it. We have had some unsavory allies, and our Government is often willing to go to bed with anyone offering a buck-and what about little My Lai and napalming the rice paddies, and what about our military complicity in torture centers in South America? But, mea culpa s aside, does anyone doubt that the Serbs are the Scum of the Earth, the latest Darth Vader lookalikes, at least today’s best candidate? There they are, the winners of the award for the least-civilized, least-humane, least-able-to-understand-Mozart-or-Shakespeare-or-Yeats, distinguished vulgarians of the year.

There they are: fangs for teeth, claws for hands. Upright they walk on two legs, but that’s an illusion; they really crawl on their metaphoric bellies. I do not want them in my neighborhood. I do not want them to come for dinner. I do not want them in my children’s schools. I know I should be more tempered, more polite. Six hundred years of regretting a battle loss can do bad things to a person’s disposition, but still: The burning, the killing, the chasing into the night of women and babies who are without blankets to keep them warm, the destruction of marriage and birth records and the occupation of other people’s homes and villages, well, what is that but coarseness, human indifference, bestiality, brutish behavior of the barely human, the not quite human? Look at those evilhearted ones for whom nationalism is the bad excuse but not the whole story, reeking of Cain’s self-interested false justifications and seeking reward in unarmed people’s blood. What are they but men with the moral complexity of hamsters-unfortunately, hamsters with pistols and knives.

Yes, the war crimes tribunal will catch one or two of them. Yes, the killing will one day be finished, exhausted, because there is no one else to roust, pursue, plague; no families left to destroy. Or perhaps the slaughter will end because the outside world has found a way to put the monster back in his hole, at least for a while.

But let me say it clearly. This is no time for seven kinds of ambiguity, no climate for irony, no place for the long-distance view The Serbs responsible for the work of death in Kosovo are vile, contemptible people who will leave a permanent scar on the name of that very nation they seem so excessively proud of. This is a moral blot that will have a significant half-life, lingering in historical memory at least as long as that distant Turkish victory. The Serbs will glow in the moral dark until my grandchildren have gray hair.

I know there must be Serbs who would not do what these Serbs have done. I know that there will emerge later some much-ballyhooed story about a hidden Albanian child and a farmer who would not ride off on his Albanian Muslim neighbor’s dray horse. But the fact is that those in authority have ordered this attack and the soldiers in the army have followed it through and, like sharks in bloody waters, care not a fig what someone far away, someone neither Serb nor Albanian, will think of them.

We shouldn’t generalize about all Serbs, but one has to wonder, where are their intellectuals? Cowering behind their doors, I suspect. Where are the independent-minded priests and schoolteachers and doctors and heads of do-good organizations? Those are the kind of people who by the nature of their profession should be able to imagine themselves in the skin of other humans. Someone in that nation ought to be performing the role of conscience to the id-driven leadership.

Their silence is indefensible. We’ve seen this before. More than once, the civilian population has seen no evil while peeping from behind the curtain at a neighbor’s catastrophe. Later, they will tell us they were afraid to speak out, but they wanted to, oh so badly, they wanted to. Of course, if they win, if they take over a Kosovo emptied of Albanians and a Greater Serbia rests-teeth glistening from the marrow dug from the bones of the dead, a great wolf after a high romp through a henhouse that was home to the farm dog, the family pig and maybe the newborn baby-then the after-the-fact objections will be just so much more hot air polluting our atmosphere.

My horror at Serbian thuggery is mitigated only slightly by the fact that Serbs did fight the fascists in the last war. They did rescue some Jews and, with Jewish partisans, were true heroes of the resistance. That kindness was not the milk of human kindness so much as the result of “My enemy is your enemy and my friend is your friend.” The luck of the draw brought the Serbs and the Jews together; I know it seems ungrateful to turn on them now. But it’s not enough to have bravely fought for me if you go and kill someone else another day. There is no moral bank account in the sky in which one good deed earns you forgiveness for whatever may follow.

I know the Kosovo Liberation Army might turn out to make the Taliban look like Girl Scouts, and I know that the Albanians might be capable, if they had the power, of driving the Serbs into the Adriatic Sea. But we don’t live in a maybe world of might and would, we live in the here and now, and here the Serbs are possessed by the demon of nationalism and are forfeiting their claim to belong to the civilized community. What others have done or would do or might do is not the point. Today, as I write this, frightened children are climbing through the snowy mountain passes and old people, with the dirt of their land still on their faces and under their fingernails, are weeping for their homes and their families.

When Jews said “Never again,” it was meant as a fist shaken at the human community: You cannot do this to us again. We will be prepared. We will have our own nation. We will have our own weapons. We will not be a civilian population pushed off the flat edge of the round world. But those words touch our spirits like cruise missiles if they do not include the other vulnerable peoples of the world. When I saw a crowded train of sad-eyed Albanian exiles, stopped at a small wooden rail station far from their homes, I couldn’t help but compare and equate and rage again.

I, for one, will never, ever buy a Serbian car. Perhaps Noah should not have been helped into his ark. Perhaps beetles are a more promising species than humankind. We are surely God’s terrible mistake. Is it time for a recall?