Contagion out of Bosnia: a Gangrene of the Spirit

January 26, 1994|By ANDREW BARD SCHMOOKLER

Broadway, Virginia. -- We in the West have rationalized our acquiescence in the Bosnia atrocities, telling ourselves that, however terrible, this bloodletting is localized, confined to a more peripheral and primitive part of the European continent than where the mainstream of history is flowing.

Too bad about Bosnia, we say; it's really terrible to see these people, day after day, at each other's throats. But ultimately, it's not our problem.

We can believe this, however, only because we fail to recognize the nature of contagion in human affairs.

Not all human conduct is equally contagious. Some years ago, an anthropologist investigated those behaviors that are most contagious among human beings living together. He was intrigued by how, when one person in a group yawns, those who see him have the impulse to yawn as well. Laughter, too, is infectious, and coughing and smiling: By some subtle mechanism, the sight or sound of one person in a group doing one of these things unleashes the impulse in others to do likewise.

In this set of contagious behaviors, the anthropologist discerned a fascinating common thread: What they all had in common was that they exposed the teeth. The countless eons of our species development, evidently, had made the baring of the teeth especially irresistible to emulate. It is as if the sight of another brandishing our most primitive weapons compels the rest of us to show that we have them too.

Among the contagious behaviors of our kind, therefore, the specter of violence may lie particularly close to the heart.

Common sense can always find practical and mundane explanations for our grotesque actions.

Why in the 1990s were Nazis suddenly marching again in Germany? The Germans were under stress, the conventional wisdom has said, struggling with indigestion after their re-unification. If the eruption of German violence had anything to do with the situation in Yugoslavia, it was because all those thousands of refugees fleeing the Balkan war increased the stress in Germany and inflamed the Germans' animus against foreigners.

Those are part of the picture, of course. But it was not just coincidence, I would suggest, that it was precisely when it became clear that the great powers would do nothing to stop ethnic cleansing, mass murder and rape in the Balkans that skinheads started burning Turks in Germany. Like a gangrene of the spirit, the message spread from Yugoslavia that the most hideous of our impulses could be freely indulged.

Balkans are a special case, we have told ourselves. These people have been killing each other for centuries. But it is clear the Balkans are hardly unique in harboring such menacing ghosts. We have all been killing each other for centuries. And throughout the world there has been the temptation, whenever psychological and social boundaries have been disturbed, to mobilize a special ''Us'' to bludgeon a despised ''Them.'' ''Auslaender Raus!'' ''Foreigners get out!''

Common sense also has ready explanations for the recent scary success of fascism in Russia: It is the failure of Boris Yeltsin's economic reforms, the economic misery of the Russian people, that accounts for the recent dark turn in Russian politics.

Everything seems inevitable in retrospect. But Mr. Yeltsin himself did not know that his gamble with the Parliament would trade the hard-liner Ruslan Khasbulatov for the monster Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He, too, underestimated the less visible demonic forces that have been unleashed into the European system.

The costs of putting the beasts back in their cages in the Balkans would be too high, the leaders of our rich and mighty nations have decided. But now the contagion of growling nationalism -- the kind that wields hatred and violence as the means of achieving group identity and dignity -- has infected what is still a great power armed with nuclear weapons.

At least this contagion is not a problem in America, we reassure ourselves. But I am not so sure that we in the United States are so immune to the miasma we have allowed to rise out of the festering Balkans. Not when I hear every day our national airwaves filled with the likes of G. Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan crouching together with their millions of listeners snarling about their world of ''us-versus-them.''

We have global analysts who see the new world order as divided into a Zone of Peace and a Zone of Turmoil. But the human system does not allow such neat divisions, not with creatures like us who are susceptible to the infection of contagions. Yet the world has stood by while the Serbs bit off a piece of Croatia and gnaw on the bones of Bosnia.

What a time to countenance this baring of the teeth, a time when the face of Europe was newly fresh for molding. It is already hard to recall the sense of hopeful possibilities that arose as the Cold War ended and the peoples of Eastern Europe gained their freedom.

By wringing our hands and turning our backs -- that is, by doing nothing -- we let the figure of death, with his naked, grimacing teeth, stand triumphant over those newly-born hopes. At the very moment when the norms of just and peaceful relations might have been made more deeply entrenched, we have instead made our world once again safe for atrocity.

Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of ''Sowings and Reapings: the Cycling of Good and Evil in the Human System.''

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