Whose Atrocity is Bigger?
By Howard Zinn • ZCommunications • May 25, 1999
Milosovic has committed atrocities. Therefore it is okay for us to commit atrocities. He is terrorizing the Albanians in Kosovo. Therefore we can terrorize the population of cities and villages in Yugoslavia.
I get e-mail messages from Yugoslav opponents of Milosovic, who demonstrated against him in the streets of Belgrade (before the air strikes began), who tell me their children cannot sleep at night, terrified by the incessant bombing. They tell of the loss of light, of water, of the destruction of the basic sources of life for ordinary people.
To the bloodthirsty Thomas Friedman of the NEW YORK TIMES, all Serbs must be punished, without mercy, because they have “tacitly sanctioned” the deeds of their leaders. That is a novel definition of war guilt. Can we now expect an Iraqi journalist to call for bombs placed in every American supermarket on the grounds that all of us have “tacitly sanctioned” the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq caused by our eight-year long embargo.
Official terrorism, whether used abroad or at home, by jet bombers or by the police, is always given an opportunity by the press to explain itself, as is never done for ordinary terrorists. The thirty one prisoners and nine guards massacred at Governor Rockefeller’s orders in the Attica uprising; the twenty-eight women and children of the organization MOVE, killed in a fire after their homes were bombed by Philadelphia police; the eighty-six men, women, and children of the Waco compound who died in an attack ordered by the Clinton Administration;, the African immigrant murdered by a gang of policemen in New York — all of these events had explanations which, however absurd, are dutifully given time and space by the media.
One of these explanations is in terms of numbers, and we have heard both Clinton and his forked-tongue counterpart Jamie Shea pass off the bombing of Yugoslav civilians by telling us the Serb police have killed more Albanians than we have killed Serbs (although as the air strikes multiply, the numbers are getting closer). They have killed more than we have, so it’s okay to bomb not just Serbs but Albanian refugees, not just adults but children, and to use the cluster bombs which have caused unprecedented amputations in Kosovo hospitals
There were those who defended the 1945 firestorm bombing of Dresden (100,000 dead? — we can’t be sure) by pointing to the Holocaust. As if one atrocity deserves another. And with no chance at all that one could prevent the other (just as our bombings have done nothing to stop the mayhem in Kosovo, indeed have intensified it). I have heard the deaths of several hundred thousand Japanese citizens in the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified by the terrible acts of the Japanese military in that war.
I suppose if we consider the millions of casualties of all the wars started by national leaders these past fifty years as “tacitly” supported by their populations, some righteous God who made the mistake of reading Friedman might well annihilate the human race.
The television networks, filling our screen with heartrending photos of the Albanian refugees — and those stories must not be ignored — have not given us a full picture of the human suffering we have caused by our bombing.
An e-mail came to me, a message from Professor Djordje Vidanovic, a professor of linguistics and semantics at the University of Nis: “The little town of Aleksinac, 20 miles away from my home town, was hit last night will full force. The local hospital was hit and a whole street was simply wiped off. What I know for certain is 6 dead civilians and more than 50 badly hurt. There was no military target around whatsoever.”
That was an “accident”. As was the bombing of the Chinese Embassy. As was the bombing of a civilian train on a bridge over the Juzna Morava River, as was the bombing of Albanian refugees on a road in southern Kosovo, as was the destruction of a civilian bus with twenty four dead including four children (there was a rare press description of the gruesome scene by Paul Watson of the LOS ANGELES TIMES).
Some stories come through despite the inordinate attention to NATO propaganda, omnipresent on CNN and other networks (and the shameless Jamie Shea announced we bombed a television station in Belgrade because it gives out propaganda). The NEW YORK TIMES reported the demolition of four houses in the town of Merdare by anti-personnel bombs “killing five people, including Bozina Tosovic, 30, and his 11-month old daughter, Bojana. His wife, 6 months pregnant is in the hospital.
Steven Erlanger reported, also in the NEW YORK TIMES, that NATO missiles killed at least eleven people in a residential area of Surdulica, a town in southern Serbia. He described “the mounded rubble across narrow Zmaj Jovina Street, where Aleksandar Milic, 37, died on Tuesday. Mr. Milic’s wife, Vesna, 35, also died. So did his mother and his two children, Miljana, 15 and Vladimir, 11 — all of them killed about noon when an errant NATO bomb obliterated their new house and the cellar in which they were sheltering.”
Are these “accidents”, as NATO and U.S. officials solemnly assure us? One day in 1945 I dropped canisters of napalm on a village in France. I have no idea how many villagers died, but I did not mean to kill them. Can I absolve what I did as “an accident”? Aerial bombings have as inevitable consequences the killing of civilians, and this is foreseeable, even if the details about who will be the victims cannot be predicted.
The word “accident” is used to exonerate vicious actions. If I race my car at eighty miles an hour through a street crowded with children, and kill ten of them, can I call that an “accident”? The deaths and mutilations caused by the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia are not accidents, but the inevitable result of a deliberate and cruel campaign against the people of that country.
When I read a few weeks ago that cluster bombs are being used against Yugoslavia, I felt a special horror. These have hundreds of shrapnel-like metal fragments which enter the body and cannot easily be removed, causing unbearable pain. Serb children have picked up unexploded bombs and been mutilated as they exploded. I remember being in Hanoi in 1968 and visiting hospitals where children lay in agony, victims of a similar weapon — cluster bombs — their bodies full of tiny pellets.
Two sets of atrocities — two campaigns of terrorism — ours and theirs. Both must be condemned. But for that, both must be acknowledged, and if one is given enormous attention, and the other passed over with official explanations given respectful attention, it becomes impossible to make a balanced moral judgement.
There was an extraordinary report by Tim Weiner in the NEW YORK TIMES contrasting the scene in Belgrade with that in Washington where the NATO summit was taking place. “In Belgrade…Gordana Ristic, 33, was preparing to spend another night in the basement-cum-bomb shelter of her apartment building. ‘It was a really horrible night last night. There were explosions every few minutes after 2 A.M….I’m sorry that your leaders are not willing to read history.’
“A reporter read to her from Clinton’s speeches at the summit meeting. She sounded torn between anger and tears. ‘This is the bottom to which civilization, in which I believed, has gone. Clinton is playing a role, singing a song in an opera. It kills me’ As she slept, NATO’s leaders dined on soft-shell crabs and spring lamb in the East Room of the White House. Dessert was a little chocolate globe. Jessye Norman sang arias. And as the last limousine left, near midnight. Saturday morning’s all-clear sounded in Belgrade….”
Published by ZCommunications • May 25, 1999