Blame Humans, Not Human Nature

ELLEN GOODMAN TYL OP-ED, COMMENTARY

December 25, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston -- The reports piling on my desk contain little evidenc of peace on earth. They offer even less testimony about good will. They are horror stories from Bosnia and they seem to arrive like malevolent New Year's greetings, bearing grotesque reminders of what people can do to each other.

The sorriest of the lot carry accounts of mostly Serbian atrocities -- of murder, rape, hate. They have been collected, typed and mailed by human-rights activists, people whose daily work I do not envy.

Under the weight of such barbaric stories, the place that was once Yugoslavia has now come to symbolize something more than another war-torn country. For many, it has come to represent proof of some ultimate heart of human darkness.

Lift up the Soviet rock, says a colleague who shares my reading, and this is what happens. People revert to what is basic and base in human nature. Strip away the thinnest veneer of enforced civility, national community, law and order, says a friend, and we are again tribal, atavistic, lawless, murderous. This ''natural'' view turns his post-Cold War hopes sour.

I don't agree. Not entirely. It seems to me that people are, anything and everything, possibilities waiting to crystallize. The species that commits atrocities also collects evidence of atrocities, and is outraged by atrocities. Human beings who commit war crimes also created the concept of war crimes.

War and crime. Legal codes about right and wrong violence seem absurd to some, a whitewash designed to cleanse war of its own intrinsic savagery. To others, this week's re-election of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- by hook or crook -- mocks the label ''war criminal'' which many in the world have slapped on this ''ethnic cleanser.''

But codes of war are more than moral banisters to cling to on the disastrous slope toward brutality that we see again in Bosnia. Their existence says something else about the human character. They speak to the side of our nature that also demands some check on violence.

As long ago as the 5th century B.C., there were efforts to control violence in cultures as different and independent from each other as the Chinese, the Mayans and the Indians. Similar humanitarian codes were devised to protect children, women, the elderly, the sick, and the wounded. Their existence suggests that humans share some ''basic'' sense about right and wrong.

Codes of war were elaborated through the Middle Ages and into the 20th century. They grew, like moral building blocks, from our best impulses and worst experiences.

We know them best from the Nazi war-crimes tribunals -- some of which ironically took place in Yugoslavia -- and from the Geneva Conventions. Under the conventions, war crimes grew to include killing or torturing prisoners of war or civilians, conducting experiments on people, forcing them into inhuman conditions, destroying their cultural heritage, deporting them.

Historically rape was not officially named as a war crime. Indeed, it was often a war perk. As recently as World War II, Moroccan mercenary soldiers were given license by the Free French to rape women in enemy territory of Italy.

Now, in the wake of allegations that rape is a Serbian policy of war, sexual assault is added to the list of war crimes. The mass rape of Muslim women more than fits the Geneva Convention's definition of ''torture or inhuman treatment . . . willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health.''

These laws may not have much greater effect in deterring war crimes than domestic laws have in deterring domestic crimes. With few exceptions, we only catch and try those criminals who lose their wars.

But at least the criminal codes of war make collective statements about who we are. They say that all is not fair in war. That some acts are not human, but designated subhuman. That as a world community we agree on a bottom line to violence. That great wrongs deserve justice.

These codes also say that individuals are responsible for their own actions. There is no defense in the claim by a war criminal that ''I was just taking orders.'' There is no defense in the claim that ''he did it first.'' Not if the previous wrong is a week old or, as is often true in Yugoslavia, 600 years old.

The murderers and rapists alleged in the papers on my desk may or may not come to trial. Slobodan Milosevic may serve his term in the president's office or come to the prisoner's dock.

But the concept of war crimes is still essential to society. These codes place blame. Not on human nature but on our behavior as humans. They hold us responsible as the troubled world already holds many Serbians responsible. Not just for war. For crime.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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