IN MAY OF 2000 my wife and I spent three weeks in Sarajevo, courtesy of the U.S. State Department. Four and a half years after the end of hostilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, reminders of the war were still very visible. One example: we played tennis on courts in the middle of the Zetra Ice Rink where the 1984 Olympic speed skating competitions were held. While playing we had to jump across the potholes left by mortar shells. And as we gazed across the hills surrounding the rink, we looked over hundreds, if not thousands, of bright white crosses and crescents adorning the graves of those killed in the war.
While in Sarajevo, we learned some valuable lessons, but most important was the insidious evil of "We" and "They." Something to which we here in America, all of us, would do well to pay close attention, because when you don't, the Bosnians could tell you, tens of thousands can end up dead. Some will be them; some will be us.
In July 1995, Serb troops occupied the United Nations "safe haven" of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, then massacred 8,000 Bosniak men in what has been ruled genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. That was only part of the war's death and destruction.
This conflict was not really about religion, although the Bosniaks are of Muslim heritage, as the Croats are Catholic and the Serbs, Orthodox. One pointed Bosnian joke highlights these supposed distinctions. How do you tell a Serb from a Croat from a Bosniak? Easy, a Serb is someone who doesn't go to an Orthodox church, a Croat is someone who doesn't go to a Catholic church and the Bosniak is someone who doesn't go to the mosque. The point is that the ethnic divisions in Bosnia (and all across the pieces of the former Yugoslavia) were built on ancient animosities, not current religiosity.
Actually telling a Serb from a Croat from a Bosniak can be tricky. They all look the same. (Here in the United States historically we had the decency to color-code people so you can easily tell them from us.) What you do in Bosnia is ask their name. (Jakov and Naida are Croatian; Jovan and Slobodan, Serbian; while Samir and Tarik are Bosniak.) Then you know whom to hate. You just need to know who is "we" and who is "they."
I was sent to Bosnia to help nurture a tiny piece of one of the social institutions that make for a civil society, in this case, a media organization that wasn't based on bias and bigotry. The media in Bosnia (and Serbia and Croatia), which should have been part of the solution, were a big part of the problem. Their distortions and hate mongering were part of what led to the genocide.
I am not predicting an imminent civil catastrophe in the United States, because we are not there -- yet. But neither was Germany in, say, 1928. We, like the Germans were, are, however, headed in that direction and the media are part of the problem here, too. Freedom of the press says media personalities (for example, Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann) can act like vicious idiots. But we have an equal freedom not to watch them. So don't. Then they’ll go away. (If you think only one of them is part of the problem, I'm afraid you are part of it too.)
We read the news reports from around the world and think: "It can't happen here. We're not Rwanda. We're not Uganda.” Sadly, history tells us that civilization is a thin veneer -- everywhere. Yugoslavia, like pre-Nazi Germany, was an educated and economically advanced nation, not a tribal society. If we keep up with this "Repugnican and Dimocrat" nonsense, we will find out how dim and repugnant we all can be, because when we dehumanize those who don't look, think or believe like we do, it has one primary effect: to dehumanize us all.
Here's a thought: How about we stop before we start on digging the mass graves?
Gary D. Gaddy has good friends with whom he agrees on just about nothing politically or religiously.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday June 18, 2010.
Copyright 2010 Gary D. Gaddy