ANCIENT HATREDS AND MODERN DEMONS: The Double Bind on Popular Dissent

Matthew C. Ally



Karsten Struhl



Ecological Devastation Crushes Yugoslavia

Report From the Belgrade Zoo

Who Are the Real Terrorists?

Images and Holocausts

Germany’s Secret Documents

Beating Plows Into Evacs

Television Station Bombed

Just How Did the US Flag Acquire All Those Stars?

Mitchel Cohen


VOICES FROM BELOW: Collateral Damage, Incoming!

Biljana Marjanovic



Omar Dahbour



Silvia Federici and George Caffentzis


BOMBING THE BRIDGE TO THE 21ST CENTURY: Behind NATO’s Bombardment of Yugoslavia

Mitchel Cohen


IS NATO A KILLER COP? A View from the Russian Democratic Left

Alexander V. Buzgalin


ANOTHER INVENTED ENEMY? A Call for a New Peace Movement

Betsy Bowman and Bob Stone


Carl Lesnor









The Double Bind on Popular Dissent

Matthew C. Ally


"Tensions along ethnic, racial, or historical fault lines can lead to civil violence, but to explain the Yugoslav crisis as a result of ethnic hatred is to turn the story upside down and begin at the end. "

Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War

"Atrocities in the war are giving aid and comfort to the ruling idea that the communities could not and did not want to live together. Those who start from this conviction are led to belittle the importance of all those who are now trying to resist separation, or who are suffering from it. "

Catharine Samary, Yugoslavia Dismembered

"The terrible paradox is that very many people, in the sincere desire to oppose racism and aggression, have in fact contributed to demonizing an entire people, the Serbs, thereby legitimizing both ethnic separatism and the new role of NATO as occupying power in the Balkans on behalf of a theoretical ‘international community.’ "

Diana Johnstone, "Seeing Yugoslavia Through a Dark Glass"


I spent a great deal of time arguing with people during the seventy-eight days of NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia, trying to explain why the war needed to be resisted, why it was unjustifiable, illegal, and immoral. A lot of these arguments were with "progressives" (so-called) who were "reluctantly" supporting the war, and needless to say, a lot of time was spent discussing the "moral dimensions" of the conflict. The progressive’s moral question goes something like this: "How can we sit idly by while atrocities are being committed in Yugoslavia?…even though, as a Progressive, I don’t really trust the media or our President or his Cabinet or the military, even though I know our government systemically favors and defends the interests of the rich, even though I know our domestic social policy is in shambles, and our country has enormous problems, like domestic violence, growing poverty, congenital racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, massive criminality at all levels, under-funded and overcrowded schools, overcrowded prisons, under-funded rehabilitation programs, rampant drug abuse (especially among the poor and unemployed), insufficient childcare, urban and suburban decay, lack of agricultural reform, continued environmental degradation, frequent police brutality, unfair taxation..." and so on. The catalogue of domestic deficiencies does not end here, of course (to say nothing of what is positive about the United States, of which, in my opinion, there is much to say). The progressive’s reluctance is instructive, if only because it expresses in sharp relief what persons from all across the political spectrum know: that our country, too, has its share of problems. I bring this up merely to point out that in public (and private) arguments about NATO’s war in Yugoslavia, consideration of the state of the union is rarely made explicit. The Progressive, at least, "knows all this" about the United States, but wants to talk about Yugoslavia. The Liberal "is deeply concerned about all this," and talks about Yugoslavia. The Conservative, too, has a vision of America, though he or she "doesn’t see it that way," and in any case, wants to talk about Yugoslavia. Fair enough, but we must look a little closer.

If we are going to go the moral route in discussing this war, we are morally obligated to ask as many questions as possible about just what made the war happen, including the question of what made it tolerable for the majority of the US populace, who allowed it to go on without much complaint. In the next few pages, I want to talk about just two politically and morally charged false presumptions (largely created and purveyed by the mainstream media), which contributed significantly to the manufacture of popular support for a war which might otherwise have been broadly resisted.


Ancient Balkan Hatreds

One of the more subtle means of justifying the US-led NATO war on Yugoslavia is to appeal to an alleged character trait of Balkan peoples in general. This justification works from the mistaken and historically indefensible assumption that the peoples of the Balkans are, in some sense, simply too plagued by "ancient ethnic hatreds" to be able to live together. The idea that such hatreds are deep-seated, long-standing, and intractable feeds easily into an interventionist posture (though one might think it could just as easily feed into a "hands-off" policy), especially where alleged humanitarian concern is claimed as a primary motive. Thus, in conversations "in the street," one often encounters the argument that Balkan people just can’t live together, that they all hate each other, that under communism they were forced to live together "artificially," and so on. In short, the argument holds that living together is just impossible and unnatural for them, and even undesirable to them. This depiction of the peoples of the Balkans suggests in turn, even if obliquely, that they are somehow incapable of governing themselves across ethnic boundaries, thus lending further support to the idea that "someone had to get in there and straighten things out." It is a false characterization of the people of the region, and must be rejected.

Consider, for instance, the practice of parenting. When teaching their children about "difference," most parents tend, at worst, only to teach their children to mistrust those who are different from them. Such learned mistrust can be acquired more passively through example, or more actively by specific instruction. It is not necessary for parents to teach mistrust, and many resist it, but no one can doubt that it happens all over the world all the time. And there is comfort in the fact that even where mistrust has been learned, it is relatively easy to overcome. What must be recognized is that children who have been taught to hate are the exception, not the rule. Learned mistrust, which seems an inevitable, if unfortunate, affect and effect of social existence need not always yield to fear and to hatred, and usually doesn’t. When it does, problems are compounded, for unlike mistrust, strong fears and deep hatreds die hard.

It is worth recalling that the Yugoslav constitution, whatever its flaws, was a model of legislated civic and ethnic tolerance. A 1981 census was interesting in at least one respect: over a million people left the "nationality" line blank, or wrote "Yugoslav," rather than identify themselves as Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, and so on. (Not a few of them wrote "Eskimo", as a form of tongue-in-cheek protest at having been asked the question in the first place.) It is also worth recalling that there were more than 3,000,000 children of "mixed marriages" in former Yugoslavia (a country of 22,000,000), who, whatever their desires may have been, could not be either Serb or Croat or Slovenian or Montenegrin or Albanian or any one thing. They could not be either one or the other; they lived and still live a "both/and" existence. It is well worth the effort to try to imagine their experience, especially in a place where we have been taught to think of ethnicity as what matters most. Clearly, the parents of these millions of children thought differently. A final example: until the mid-1990’s, 40% of the marriages in Sarajevo were "mixed." Clearly those couples, at least, had little time for "ancient ethnic hatreds."

Historically, strong fears and powerful hatreds are generated in large measure only in contexts of material insufficiency and political instability, usually with the assistance of incendiary demagoguery. Profound fears and hatreds are not generated by ordinary people who, for instance, buy their bread from an Albanian, have their hair cut by a Serb, ride a bus driven by a Croat to see their Slovenian obstetrician because they have a job and so can afford to pay for bread and for personal hygiene and for public transportation to take them to receive the high quality pre-natal care to which their citizenship entitles them, regardless of their ethnicity. Such historical and social-psychological truths notwithstanding, people still make much hay from this fictitious idea of "long-standing and intense hatreds" in the Balkans. We begin our discussions with these alleged hatreds when, in fact, as numerous analysts and historians have carefully documented, they were the last thing to emerge in the unraveling of the most recent Yugoslavia. It is not the people, but the leadership (Franjo Tudjman, Slobodan Milosevic, and Alia Izetbegovic, not least among them) who were able to stir up these admittedly long-standing but quite ordinary mistrusts in a country that had lived an unprecedented, and in many respects, remarkably successful multi-national experiment for nearly half a century.

This now conventional notion of "long-standing" ethnic hatreds, and the assumption that such hatreds have "caused" the crisis in Yugoslavia, say at least as much (and probably more) about Western condescension, ethnocentrism, and paternalism as they do about what the peoples of the Balkans are really "like." The leadership chose the path of hatred, not the people. This is not to say that the people are mere passive victims, but that some of them, at least, are active dupes. Along the way their leaders have been able to manufacture extraordinary hatreds out of ordinary mistrusts. A dire social, political, and economic circumstance made such manufacture easy. This is an old ruse, a modern-day inflection of good old fashioned brinkmanship.


Modern Balkan Demons

The myth of ancient ethnic hatreds feeds neatly into a cause/effect model for the "inevitable" demise of Yugoslavia, and this model, in turn, feeds neatly into another morally charged mythical practice, the demonization of the Serbian people. Consider the following consistent media formula. There are rare moments, few and far between, when the mainstream media does deign to present a story that at least obliquely addresses something positive about "the Serbs." However, any report that even vaguely suggests a true dignity of the Serbian people, that touches upon their humanity, their complexity, that offers a glimmer of compassion, or recognizes their decency, and so on, is, without exception, immediately overshadowed by a longer and more detailed report on ethnic Albanian refugees and/or Serbian "atrocities" and/or Milosevic’s "evil." By means of this media imbalance, the humanity of the Serbian people is always already eclipsed by their alleged inhumanity. (And to those who doubt that the Serbian people, as a whole, has really been "demonized" by the media, I can only say, ask a Serb. Ask any Serb, anywhere.) This demonization, like the myth of ancient hatreds, functions as an effective justification for "humanitarian intervention," and an equally effective buttress to otherwise legitimate dissent.

In the idiom of humanitarianism, one should not commit "human rights abuses," and one must not commit "atrocities." Conveniently, the distinction between the two is vague, at best. Without dwelling on the ambiguities, we can acknowledge that atrocities were committed. There is no doubt that horrible things were being done on all sides (civil war seems to bring out the worst in people), and it is equally likely that at many points in the conflict a disproportionate amount of violence was being wrought by one side upon the other (though this was never a merely two-sided war). Still, there are good reasons for Americans and other "Westerners" to claim relative ignorance with regard to the actual nature and extent of what was and is being done to whom and by whom, and where and when it was and is being done. As a preface to my comments, a colleague from Moscow University, for instance, who visited New York last April (two and a half weeks into the bombing), noted somewhat incredulously that while all he saw in the news in Moscow were pictures of dead and displaced Serbs and of downed NATO aircraft and artillery, all he saw in New York were pictures of dead and displaced Kosovar Albanians and pictures of hundred million dollar aircraft taking off from ten billion dollar carriers and dropping million dollar "smart" bombs that always hit their targets and never seemed to hurt anybody. It will be worth bearing this comparison in mind in the context of what follows, for the present question concerns what those who depend on the media for information actually know about the nature and extent of atrocities, and what impact this media-based virtual perception has on people’s actual interpretations and actions.

Some of the extremes to which the media have been willing to go are instructive. For instance, to call Milosevic "a new Hitler," and to put his face on the cover of a nationally distributed popular news magazine alongside a caption that reads, "The Face of Evil" (Newsweek, March 1999), trivializes not only the experience of Europeans between 1938 and 1945, but equally the experience of all the peoples of the Balkans in the past decade or so. Things would be simplified immeasurably if Milosevic’s was, indeed, the "face of evil." However, things are quite a bit more complex than that, and it’s the concrete and lived complexity of the situation that must inform one’s response, not the pastiche of an abstract good-versus-evil formula.

Another example, more directly related to the question of atrocities. In mid-January, William Walker, the chief of the OSCE cease-fire verification mission to Kosovo, reported what has come to be called the "Racak Massacre." (Again, this bears repetition, it is not a question here of whether massacres do happen, and have happened in this particular conflict. The point is to speak directly to the question of what those who depend on the media know of the "nature and extent" of actual atrocities, and what that "knowledge" means for their understanding of the situation.) When the reports of what might really have happened, and more importantly, of what seemed not to have happened in Racak (namely, a massacre) reached the mainstream European press shortly thereafter (e.g. Le Monde, January 21), it was too late. That neither the journalists present nor the OSCE observers found themselves able to find any evidence of a massacre, and, in fact, found clear evidence of a fierce battle between military and paramilitary personnel, meant very little. The "Racak massacre," had "happened," and became a "legitimate" and legitimating part of the US/NATO story.

One final example: The media portrayed the increased "ethnic cleansing" once the bombing had started as the Milosevic government’s last ditch effort to carry out a detailed, systematic, and federally sanctioned plan of "purification" that is said to have been developed and put into place long ago. To date, there is no concrete evidence that such an established government plan the wholesale removal of all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo by murder and expatriation actually exists or ever existed. That there may be members of the Yugoslav parliament who would endorse such a plan is hardly relevant. (And one can only imagine the social policy "innovations" that might be endorsed by some of the US’s own "fringe" representatives.) The fact is, no such plan ever existed or was put before the Yugoslav parliament. The Yugoslav plan that is known to have pre-existed the US/NATO intervention involved detailed conventional military proposals on how to confront and to defeat the Kosovo Liberation Army through what was, according to many military analysts, a fairly standard ("classic") counterinsurgency strategy. The KLA was believed by the United States and the United Nations to pose a serious threat to Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty, two foundational principles of modern international law. It was perceived by the Milosevic government (and, again, by the United Nations and the United States until shortly before NATO’s bombing) to be an illegal paramilitary organization, a "terrorist organization" in the official rhetoric. The media, however, is perfectly willing to present the unsubstantiated story of a long-established and brutal "purification plan" to the world, though no one seems to be able to produce it. Those who might object that such a plan could have been endorsed and enacted covertly have their research cut out for them. That so many Americans believe it did exist and was publicly endorsed by the legitimate governing body of Yugoslavia speaks volumes as to the effectiveness of our national media.

Such media excesses buttress public support for NATO’s "humanitarian intervention," and solidify animosities on all sides, just as did the photograph of the emaciated figure of Fikret Alic in a "Serbian concentration camp" at Tronpolje, which was subsequently proved to be a fraud by outside inspectors. (For further details on this and many more examples of media bias, see Mitchel Cohen’s, "Not in the News," in this booklet.)


The Double Bind on Popular Dissent

Extremism and sensationalism in the media do have a profound impact on public perceptions. Everybody knows that, and this quotidian knowledge in itself, should feed skepticism, and encourage both individuals and groups to recognize their ignorance, and actively to seek better information. (There is too much at stake, this is a war.) The point is, if we are honest, we must admit at least that the average attentive American knows very little of what was and is really happening in Yugoslavia, just as the "average" American knows little or nothing of the history of the Balkans, and until recently, had probably never heard of Serbia or Albania, and certainly not of Kosovo. We need to accept this, and work to move beyond it. We need to take our knowledge and our ignorance seriously; to acknowledge it, not to deny it. Whether we like it or not, ignorance is a prominent and decisive fact in all of this, in all places, on all sides, as it is in nearly everything human beings do. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ignorance as such. What is wrong is to conduct one’s life as if ignorance is not a part of it. This is as true for an "expert" as it is for a "layperson". It is up to each of us whether we will use or misuse our own specific ignorance in conjunction with what we do know. The alternative is to let our government decide to wage war for us without our informed consent. That, of course, is the formula for an authoritarian state, not a democratic one.

Those who are even moderately attentive to the media have good reason to suspect that the portrayal of atrocities is grossly exaggerated, and always to the detriment of the "enemy’s" political, moral, and psychological position. There are good reasons to refuse to base one’s arguments and positions on reports of atrocities and grand evil schemes, for we know little if anything about them. On the other hand, there are many dimensions of the conflict about which we do know a great deal political, economic, environmental, and cultural aspects, not least among them.

Moreover, though it is not discussed in the mainstream media, there was an enormous Yugoslav national debt that had accrued under Tito, and interest rates and changes in world economic structures after his death only made the situation in Yugoslavia worse. "Leaders," such as the three named above, (who are primarily interested in the preservation of their own power) under the pressures of instant "marketization" and "democratization," in the context of a global political and economic apparatus that had no real interest in their nations’ success and that was undergoing its own radical shifts in light of the (possibly temporary) end of the Cold War international order, had a tough choice: they could travel the long, hard road of national re-creation without substantial or unbiased help from the world at large; or they could take the ostensibly easy, and ultimately destructive and bloody road of demeaning and blaming the Other, and receiving selective aid from countries with their own national and international interests which were willing to "help" given adherence to certain "conditionalities."

These are the sorts of things we do know. And yet they have virtually no bearing on the so-called public debate. To what extent are the atrocity stories fabrications? We can’t know, especially in the heat of an ongoing civil war. Given the historical record, the burden of proof is on those who make the accusations. Short of hard proof, such accusations and the beliefs they support, rooted in inescapable ignorance, can hardly be used to serve peaceful and democratic ends. More energy can and should be given to what we do know in public discussions, lest historical reality be transformed in light of an ahistorical illusion.

How did consent prevail in a situation where dissent should have? In short, strong and politically charged beliefs about the character of all the people of the Balkans, combined with strong and morally charged beliefs about the demonic character of one of those peoples, can and did lead to popular support for an insupportable war. A case in point are the progressive hawks (and other erstwhile doves), who took up the thin and bad historical and current information available to them and condoned NATO’s "humanitarian" war. They express what they consider to be sufficient political skepticism, and support the war as just and necessary for moral reasons, even if in their heart of hearts they "wish it wasn’t and feel just awful about it." They are caught in a double bind.

Angels and demons, blood and soil; these are the things that myths are made of. They capture the imagination in a way that politics and economics never will. There is more to it, of course, but broadly disseminated obfuscation and dissimulation were instrumental. After all, who could not want to stop a demon from stirring up a powder keg? But what if, not so long ago, the powder keg was more of a "glorious mosaic" than the very land of those who chose to bomb it, and what if the demon really isn’t and never was a demon at all? That’s when things get complicated. Nobody likes complications. And bombing is so simple, like hatreds and demons.



Matthew C. Ally, M.Div., has taught philosophy and world religions in the New York City area. He is currently completing a doctoral dissertation at Temple University on Jean-Paul Sartre’s unpublished and undelivered 1965 Cornell Lectures on "Morality and History", and has a forthcoming article on Sartre’s dialectical ethics in Sartre Studies International.