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Admit You're the Rabbit

I have a colleague, Peter Lippman, who is a curious mixture of human rights advocate and journalist, kind of a Joe Sacco who doesn't do comics. His travels and writings on Bosnia are extensive, nuanced, and thoughtful. He's a witness in the best sense of the word, and still goes Back to B-H twenty years later to see how things are progressing.

Every once in a while, he sends out his latest writings. One of them came in today, and in it he documents an interesting conversation on collective guilt, how it relates to war crimes. It feels very relevant to me today.

I can never forget that people are just people, inclined to take care of themselves before taking care of others. Religion and philosophy tell us not to behave that way, but we don't listen. Or we try, but it's hard. My point here is that I find it understandable when people keep their heads down while crimes are going on. I just wish they wouldn't.

Back in October I was sitting in the old section of Sarajevo with my friend Hikmet, the Višegrad activist I've mentioned before. In that city, terrible abuses took place in 1992, with mass expulsion, mass execution, throwing people into the Drina River and shooting them, and locking people in houses and setting them on fire. For all practical purposes Višegrad, whose population was once more than fifty percent Muslim, is now empty of Muslims.

Hikmet told me, "I believe that the people of Višegrad are guilty. Višegrad is a small town. Everyone knew what was happening. Everyone knew who was running things. No one did anything. Now, someone could at least be anonymously informing the authorities about the mass graves. Someone did that in Foča and 55 remains were found. But no one has done that in Višegrad. They are all guilty. I think Višegrad should be punished. If we [the Bosniak population of Višegrad] are not allowed to live there, the people of Višegrad should not be allowed to live well. And they aren't - people are leaving."

These were the words of Hikmet. When he spoke of punishing the entire town of Višegrad because they were "all guilty," I felt uncomfortable because I oppose collective punishment on principle. This tactic, used in war and in low-intensity conflicts over the millennia, has been outlawed, but it is still widely practiced.

I contemplate my own involvement in wrongs that are being done, for example, in the vast US financial support for Israel's atrocious, long-term mistreatment of the Palestinians. I don't like to feel guilty and I don't respond well to shaming. But I am embarrassed by US policies in general. I prefer to ward off a sense of guilt by being responsible, by trying to take responsibility, as an activist, to make these things stop.

Other human rights activists that I know have different answers. One prominent leftist commentator, John Gerassi, was a professor at Queens College in New York a couple of decades ago when I studied there. He told me, "The IRA has the right to attack British civilians because they are upholding a fascist regime in Northern Ireland."

I wasn't comfortable with this reasoning. And for that matter, the Palestine solidarity organization that I work with explicitly condemns the targeting of civilians as a tactic, as perpetrated by any side.

I had the chance to talk to Hikmet about these same questions again a few weeks later, and he had the opportunity to elaborate. I said, "Aren't we Americans just as guilty with regard to Palestine as the Serbs of Višegrad were for what happened in 1992? It's being done with our tax money."

Hikmet answered, "You can't compare Americans' responsibility in Palestine with the local Serbs' responsibility in Višegrad. You don't see what's going on directly. You didn't witness what happened in Fallujah, in Iraq. In Višegrad, people saw the houses burning. These things happened in their own neighborhoods. People who live there are directly responsible for what happened because no one has come forth to say who robbed the people, and who burned the houses."

Q: Are you saying that people know what happened and who did what?
A: "Višegrad is a small place, especially the center of town where some of these things happened. The deportations happened from the center of the city. They would bring in five or six buses, round people up, and deport them. Say you're a Serb and you're going to the store to buy eggs and bread. That Serb saw his neighbor being expelled. He knows who drove that bus. How is it possible to do nothing, and to say nothing, if you knew that neighbor for thirty years?

"There were a couple of cases where some Serbs said to their neighbors, 'There will be killing tomorrow.' Someone took and guarded some Muslim children for a year, and took care of them.

"In another situation, there were 25,000 people who took part in the conquest of Srebrenica. Ok, their children didn't understand what those soldiers were doing. But didn't any of their wives ask what they were doing, what they had done?

"On the 17th of July in 1995 [after the fall of Srebrenica], civilians came to Srebrenica and looted the town. There were grandmothers who came and carted televisions away in wheelbarrows.

"You can't compare that kind of direct involvement and guilt to the responsibility of the Americans for what's going on in Palestine or Iraq. A better comparison would be what happened when the Japanese were rounded up in the US during World War II and taken off to the internment camps. How did people react then?

"I would like to see those Serbs of Višegrad punished, not to be able to live well, at least economically. Their hope is that tourism will save Višegrad. We can campaign against that tourism. They are creating a 'new Višegrad,' one that has erased any influence from the Ottoman period.

"In Višegrad the komunalci, the city sanitation agencies, were those who cleared away the bodies from the streets. This was an institutionalized project, coordinated by a bureaucracy. And in Vlasenica there are official, stamped documents ordering the war crimes.

"Whoever wanted to leave Višegrad had to get a stamped document of permission to leave. There were only three officials who could provide this document. There was one family that tried to stay, by signing a document of loyalty to SDS. They signed. They were killed about a month later. One of the children escaped with that loyalty document, that's how we know about it.

"So you can understand why I don't think people are innocent there. Everyone in the municipal infrastructure was involved. And in the hospital, doctors refused to treat wounded Muslims. Some Muslims were taken away from the hospital and killed. There was one man who escaped from the hospital, through a window, that's how we know these things happened."


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 22nd, 2012 05:49 pm (UTC)
Part of why I write, I think, is to practice being brave, so that I would never stand by and let people take away or kill my neighbors of a different X.

Knowing that ordinary people *can* let their neighbors of 30 years perish, and knowing myself to be not particularly extraordinary, makes me think it must be harder to avoid complicity than it seems.

Online we find that it's easy to speak up to champion those people(s) whom our community supports. Much harder to speak up those whom the community has no sympathy for--so there, to my mind, is where one can practice. The community will excuse itself, say, "Yes, but they don't deserve sympathy." Of course: that's what people who want to harm or exclude others always do say. They never say, "Here are good people: let's persecute them."
Nov. 23rd, 2012 11:53 am (UTC)
Online both everybody and nobody is a neighbour. I was a little disturbed on how René Walling was treated after the whole Readercon blowup. Not because I think he's innocent or not. It's odd. I don't personally know the man. I've met him on a couple of occasions. I was at the WorldCon he organized. I've seen him speak on one panel. So out of all these tiny experiences, I have no idea of what kind of a guy he is and how he treats people. I have my own impressions, but they're mine to have, and they do not a body of evidence make.

What bothered me is that after being banned from Readercon, (which, despite the fumbles, was a process that seemed to satisfy most people and I think rightly so), there was an online continuation of "well, he's been banned from Readercon, so why is he allowed to show up at venue XXXX?" Normally, this wouldn't bother me, but I've seen just one too many real life examples of how this logic is used to keep, say, a family of Roma on the road and out of housing.

The genre community with the online component added is a little like a small village where everyone can hear everyone else arguing at night. Personally, I have strong feelings about the dispensing of justice and the right of people to a fair trial and an acceptance to the limits of punishment. But you can say that "punishment may now end" at the end of a prison sentence without condoning the crime that led to that sentence. The point of dispensing justice is not to get revenge, but to obtain closure, to right a wrong. I don't like this side of things that smells slightly of The Scarlet Letter.

EDIT: No, not RIGHT a wrong. That's impossible in nearly all cases. But address, witness, insist that a thing is real and has consequences.

Edited at 2012-11-23 11:55 am (UTC)
Nov. 23rd, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
But you can say that "punishment may now end" at the end of a prison sentence without condoning the crime that led to that sentence.


The point of dispensing justice is not to get revenge, but to obtain closure . . . [to] address, witness, insist that a thing is real and has consequences.

Yes, I'd agree with that too, though I do think arguments can be made that justice is also punitive, and I'm not sure what element revenge plays in punishment. And by saying this, I'm not saying that I think it should be punitive, or that it shouldn't be, just that it is. I guess it's the consequences element of what you've said here.

Punishment *has* to have limits, though, even for the absolute worst crimes--otherwise any crime has the potential to become a black hole into which all of us are drawn, one way or another.

Edited at 2012-11-23 04:04 pm (UTC)
Nov. 23rd, 2012 08:49 pm (UTC)
Yes, clearly. And only punish the crime once; but if, say, I get acquitted for stabbing my ex-wife to death, it doesn't seem quite just if there's a civil suit that follows. That kind of seems like double jeopardy. Collective punishment is similarly repetitious, but across persons....

But I have a quibble with Hikmet; possibly the same one that Peter has. Yes, it's fine to limit guilt or innocence only to the directly culpable, the people who did the actual deed. And by extension, the general who gave the order, who used the tools of government in the same manner that a person would use a weapon. All participants along the chain of command are directly guilty.

But how do you address a crime like Višegrad without committing one of those crimes, either multiple punishments or collective punishments? I don't know if you can without committing a crime as well. There's just simply some crimes that cannot be justly punished.

And for that, you don't need Nuremberg. You need a truth and reconciliation commission.
Nov. 25th, 2012 12:16 am (UTC)
Anything can be abused, but truth and reconciliation commissions as they've been used in South Africa seem like *wonderful* things. It helps to have a Nelson Mandela, maybe.
Nov. 25th, 2012 12:22 pm (UTC)
Nelsons are far and few, indeed. But it's more the practicality than the beauty that attracts me. So much anger and resentment is fomented by words unsaid.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )