Much about geo-politics, so I usually leave the...

DON'T KNOW

May 13, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

DON'T KNOW much about geo-politics, so I usually leave the commentary on international stuff to the five ex-foreign correspondents on The Sun editorial board.

That is particularly true now. I know less than not much about the Balkans. Until I looked it up in my Funk & Wagnall's, I thought Herzegovina was a female problem.

Now, I have lots of dictionaries at my disposal. I browse and study in them a lot. And one thing I can say with confidence about the situation in the Balkans is that what is going on in Bosnia is not, despite what you often read, genocide.

That word existed in no pre-World War II dictionary I can lay my hands on. I looked it up in a 1901 Oxford English Dictionary, a 1934 Merriam-Webster's and, of course, my Funk & Wagnall's (1935).

Only after the war did lexicographers put it in their dictionaries. Merriam-Webster's, for example, defined it this way: "The use of deliberate systematic measures (as killing, bodily or mental injury, unlivable conditions, prevention of birth) calculated to bring about the extermination [italics added for emphasis] of a racial, political or cultural group or to destroy the language, religion or culture of a group."

If I understand the reporting from Bosnia, so-called "ethnic cleansing" involves killing, injury, unlivable conditions and much, much more -- but it is aimed at taking territory and property away from the Bosnia Muslims. It is terrorism. It is uncivilized. It is indefensible. But the intent is to make the Bosnian Muslims refugees, not corpses.

It is to get rid of them in "Greater Serbia," not to get rid of them on the planet. "Extermination" is not the point. Extermination was the point in the activity that put the word "genocide" in the dictionaries -- Nazi Germany's "final solution."

George Orwell described in 1946 how euphemism can be used to "defend the indefensible." (Example: calling military routing of civilians from their homes "pacification.") I think what is happening today is the opposite tack: Outraged critics of Serbian policy are using hyperbole -- exaggeration for effect -- to make an outrage not merely indefensible but unendurable.

On a lighter note:

Bill Clinton said of Rush Limbaugh at the White House Correspondents' Dinner recently, that he had defended Attorney General Janet Reno, but only "because she was criticized by a black guy [Rep. John Conyers]."

Limbaugh and his chums took offense at this, saying he was not a racist. Even some Clinton supporters have said it wasn't funny.

I thought it was pretty funny. In fact, I thought it was a perfect parody and a perfect squelch. I assumed that whoever wrote the joke intended it to be Limbaughesque. Limbaugh specializes in carom cheap shots. And if Limbaugh isn't a racist, he sure gives a good imitation of one. He often criticizes blacks -- and with the very kind of sly innuendo that Clinton used against him.

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