The recent death of Pol Pot brings to mind our failure in preventing the genocide in Cambodia twenty years ago. This crime against humanity remains unpunished and it seems unlikely that any major figure responsible for it will ever be brought to justice. In 1994, another version of the same scenario took place in Rwanda. In the era of instant worldwide communication, somehow before we recognized what had been going on, hundred of thousands if not millions of innocent civilians were dead. Bosnia was different – from the very beginning the world was watching, disbelieving that a war so obviously nonsensical was for real. We could not imagine that the militant Serbs would dare to take Srebrenica, declared a safety zone by the UN. And, we watched stunned as they did it. We could not believe our ears hearing nearly live reports about massacres committed there. In Algeria, some fanatic rebels for reasons we barely understand launch bloody attacks on peaceful villages. The Algerian government is incapable or unwilling to put the end to it. Confused, the world is watching.
The list can go on. Should we just say an extra prayer for world peace during our weekend visits to church or should we take action, as we finally did in Bosnia? The senselessness of solving social problems by killing opponents is for us so transparent that we may ask ourselves, should we send our soldiers to fight with other people’s foolishness?
What is obvious to us is not so clear to others. A few dozen guys like Timothy McVeigh acting in unison, a few thousand sympathizers, some in government positions – Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia or Algeria could happen anywhere east or west of the Mississippi. At the roots of the American political tradition were immigrants willing to build consensus and cooperation among free individuals – and the Civil War happened anyway. But this experience united the nation in the conviction that whatever social problems may occur in the future they should be solved peacefully. Therefore, McVeigh can be seen as an accident not as a threat.
This kind of experience is missing for many nations still finding their own identity. In the former Yugoslavia a few kindred nations, which linguistically and culturally are so close that they could be seen as ethnic varieties of one unnamed nation, are divided by religion, history, economy and most of all by lack of the understanding that by working together everyone can gain more than by fighting each other. In their approximately one thousand year old history, they were part of the Byzantine Empire, then under the Turks and recently squeezed between East and West in the cold war. When finally they attained the freedom to shape their own destiny, they started killing each other.
In Poland things turned out differently. After gaining back their sovereignty in 1989 the Poles suppressed their internal divisions and whatever was dividing them from their neighbors, and concentrated on building their wealth through cooperation. The difference is in the historical experience. At the beginning of Polish statehood, in the XI, XII and XIII centuries, Poland looked like Bosnia today. The country was absurdly divided into several small principalities fighting each other continuously. It took the Poles almost two centuries to figure out that the more powerful neighbors are the only ones benefiting. When Poland emerged as a united state at the beginning of the XIV century all political thinking was obsessively preoccupied with respecting another individual’s rights. It protected Poland from the horror of the religious wars that spread throughout most of Western Europe in XV and XVI centuries. And later Poland in its dramatic history never experienced any major atrocities in dealing with its internal matters.
The Polish experience is not unique. The Germans, French or English had their own bloody path to the same conclusion. Western Europe led the progress of civilization for the last thousand years, and it is a history of wars with World War II crowning it. Let us remember that WWII was not started by barbarians but by the nation leading the development of our civilization. It grew out of the culture which gave us also Bach, Goethe, Hegel and Mercedes. In northern France, near the German border is a small piece of land which within the last two hundred years had been alternatively part of France or Germany, depending who won the last war. Only as recently as after WWII did the French and the Germans realize that the benefits of peaceful cooperation are far more important than the shape of the border line.
We may only guess how many more people need to be killed before the Balkan nations as well as many others will mature to the same conclusion. This process can be compared with the maturing of our adolescent children. Some of them learn quickly from the experience of others, some need to bounce off the walls a bit before finding their place. As parents or concerned citizens we clearly see that some of our youngsters would benefit greatly from having their foolishness forcefully tempered but sometimes there is not much we can do beside taking decisive action when we see that their behavior becomes a threat to well being of our society.
As sad it may be and as cruel it may look, seeing atrocities in some remote places of the World we take action only when we are concerned that their blood may spill into our back yard. Fortunately, for all who suffer, our World appears to be getting smaller and smaller.