Chain of suffering
Talk to the players in any major ethnic conflict — Bosnia, northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine — and you quickly run across a phenomenon that I call the "chain of victimhood." The other side did something horrible to us X years ago, forcing us to defend ourselves. This led to a new atrocity in Y years ago. ...
Talk to the players in any major ethnic conflict -- Bosnia, northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine -- and you quickly run across a phenomenon that I call the "chain of victimhood." The other side did something horrible to us X years ago, forcing us to defend ourselves. This led to a new atrocity in Y years ago. They provoked us, and we responded, and so on, ad infinitum.
Talk to the players in any major ethnic conflict — Bosnia, northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine — and you quickly run across a phenomenon that I call the "chain of victimhood." The other side did something horrible to us X years ago, forcing us to defend ourselves. This led to a new atrocity in Y years ago. They provoked us, and we responded, and so on, ad infinitum.
The constant in the "chain of victimhood" is that it was always the other side that committed the first crime. Talk to a Bosnian Muslim, and he will describe the terrible spate of ethnic cleansing, mass killing, and house burnings, initiated by Serb militia groups in March 1992. Talk to a Serb, and he will date the start of the conflict to Bosnia’s secession from Yugoslavia earlier the same month, rekindling memories of the massacres of Serbs in Nazi-controlled Bosnia in World War II. Follow the chain back and you quickly end up in 1389 when the Serbian Prince Lazar was killed in battle against the Turks.
It is a similar situation in the Middle East. Every month seems to create new links in a chain of victimhood that stretches back into the mists of time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels that he is justified in ordering new Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in response to unilateral Palestinian moves to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians complain about earlier settlement activity. The Israelis cite the threat posed by Palestinian terrorists. And so on, back to biblical times. Each side is convinced the other side started it.
So how do you break this chain of suffering, and the sense of historical grievance and victimhood that goes along with it? After spending the last few weeks talking to all sides in the Bosnia conflict, I have a modest proposal for encouraging a more reasonable, productive debate. It boils down to the following, very simple idea from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
I am inspired to make this suggestion by reading a book by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, entitled They Would Never Hurt a Fly, about war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Although she is Croatian ("a bad Croat," Croatian nationalists would argue), Drakulic goes into painful detail about Croatian crimes against Serbs, before describing Serbian crimes against Croats and Muslims. Her willingness to talk about Croatian misdeeds first gives her the credibility to talk about the misdeeds of others.
Some might object to my proposal on the grounds that the three sides in the Bosnia conflict — Serb, Muslim (or Bosniak), Croat — were not all equally bad. It is true that the Muslims suffered disproportionately in the most recent war, in large measure because they were less well armed than either the Serbs or the Croats. Nevertheless, there are plenty of examples of war crimes committed by Muslims against Serbs and Croats. To talk only about Serb and Croat crimes against Muslims is a recipe for merely prolonging the chain of suffering, and strengthening feelings of victimhood.
If Americans have any moral claim to lecture the rest of the world on human rights abuses, it is because we are willing to air our own dirty linen in public. While it is painful to read about shameful episodes such as the My Lai massacre, Abu Ghraib, and waterboarding, in the U.S. media, it is also necessary. Criticizing your own society is viewed by some as unpatriotic. In fact, it is the highest form of patriotism. If all sides in the Bosnia could display that kind of civic duty, the conflict would become much easier to resolve.
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs
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