THE fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has been honoured by our saying, still again, 'Never Again'. Then we witness the slaughter in Bosnia and ask how we can make those words more than lessons from history. There have been three main responses to this question, none of which I believe is acceptable. All three responses call for us either to resign ourselves to inaction in Bosnia or to take action while denying, and hence endorsing, comparable atrocities. A fourth response is necessary, one that combines remedial and preventive action while not denying that any remedy is selective.
Among the responses of inaction, the first is isolationism: it simply ignores the question by invoking the need to address problems at home. The opposite response is moral intervention, to declare the tragedy of Bosnia a genocide, and as such, that the European Community and United States must try to stop it. This response correctly recognizes that isolationism is inhumane -- using geographic borders to excuse indifference to the murder of others. It also recognizes that isolationism has no limits: arbitrary borders can be extended infinitely. If Americans should not care about Bosnians because Bosnians are not Americans, then no one in New York should care about anyone in California, nor should Whites concern themselves with Blacks.
The third response is realism. It correctly points out the failure of moral interventionism, that it is 'selective prosecution' to invoke 'Never Again' for Bosnia and not for other areas of bloodshed. The nature of murder in Bosnia is not unique. 'Ethnic cleansing' drives most conflicts -- killing between different tribes, races, religions. Nor are numbers a guide. After 130,000 deaths in two years in former Yugoslavia, cries of 'Never Again' are hard to ignore, but the cries began at 15,000 deaths. The cries were heeded in Somalia after uncounted -- too many -- deaths. Yet no one cries 'Never Again' for the 15,000 killed in Huambo, Angola in just two months of fighting, the 250,000 slaughtered in Liberia's civil war of the last three years, or the over 350,000 who died from Sudan's war and famine in the last two.
The fourth response I will call realist prevention. Realists are correct in arguing it is hypocrisy to act in Bosnia and in Somalia yet ignore comparable atrocities elsewhere. World attention for arbitrary reasons (or worse) will focus on some killing fields and not others. But that is not an argument for inaction. Partial success is better than total failure.
We must unfortunately recognize the realist truth -- that there are too many atrocities for the world, to respond to each with attack. Some of these atrocities that we must ignore, and have ignored, are genocide; by ignoring them, we turn an ear that is partially deaf to the call of 'Never Again'. Such selective abandonment is unavoidable. The world inevitably ignores most atrocities; when it does pay attention, a dearth of political will and a shortage of resources and ideas will hinder action in all but a few. But this does not mean we can do nothing (as the realist response assumes) to reduce the horror of our selectivity.
We must do three things. First, we must increase the number of atrocities we try to stop. That is part of what 'Never Again' means. If there is a chance to forge the coalition needed to seek the end of an atrocity, we must pursue it. If the world teeters on the brink of taking concerted action in Bosnia, the US must push it forward.
But what if, as some isolationists and realists claim, taking action really is futile? What if genocide in Bosnia cannot be stopped, or even reduced, by any form of intervention? I do not wish to assert blandly that military action by the UN necessarily will make a difference, even if the action were strong and direct; the numbing complexity of the Balkan conflict tends to dash confident solutions. But it is no more justified to predict …