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Ljiljana Smajlovic is an editor of the Belgrade weekly "NIN"
Last Tuesday Americans gained a horrifying common life experience with the Serbs: they became collateral damage in the hands of people who harshly punished ordinary citizens because of their government's politics. The next day a dumbfounded resident of New York stood before the television cameras and asked: "What does politics have to do with blowing up offices during working hours?" For years his government has been dropping bombs on the Iraqis as regularly as clockwork, weapons paid for with his tax dollars have been terrorizing Palestinian refugees; in wretchedly poor Sudan his cruise missiles destroyed one of two pharmacological companies in revenge against the wrong enemy; in his name the Serbs endured three months of merciless bombing; in three years his government has attacked four sovereign countries without so much as asking the United Nations anything beforehand. But he knows little of all this and feels responsible for even less of it. He wasn't interested but even if he was his chances of changing anything would have probably been as negligible as the chances of an typical resident of Serbia at one time of preventing police abuses against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The Americans reacted to terror from the skies just like the Serbs: they rallied around their government, their flag and their national pride. In accordance with their own national mythology, they tied thousands of yellow ribbons of rememberance around their trees and sang their national songs. When Serbs responded in a similar manner to their bombs, the American press unanimously declared this to be evidence that all Serbs were supporters of Milosevic and deserved bombing for this if for no other reason. American General Michael Short malevolently stated: We will put out the lights in Belgrade; let them sing then
All this shouldn't be taken as a sign that "there is a God" as some of our compatriots are joyfully concluding these days as they privately yet openly rejoice over the American misfortune. The God they are referring to would probably be at least as ill-disposed toward the Serbs as the Americans. In electronic messages being exchanged these days among local intellectuals (which in a country as poor as our own almost by definition includes everyone who owns a personal computer) scenes of destruction are skillfully paired up in which the burning building of the former Central Committee at Usce looks remarkably like the building of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan.
The Americans had no right according to the laws of humanity, God and international law to target Serbian civilians just as Osama bin Laden has no justification for the destruction of American property and life. However, it is neither polite nor honorable to neglect the fact that there were no victims in the building of the Central Committee while in the World Trade Center they have still not managed to dig up and count the thousands of dead.
The Serbian tragedy hit bottom in this decade when the Americans became our enemies but not only because the Americans are the most powerful force in the world and because one cannot best the devil. Our catastrophe was that we found ourselves caught in a vice, forced to wage war against a selfish and arrogant power which, to our misfortune, represents the same principles in which we too believe. Our task was to compel that unbridled force to use Anglo-Saxon standards outside Anglo-Saxon territory and to recognize our membership in the same civilization and values. Our cataclysm resulted from the fact that this power enlisted itself among the civilized and us among the barbarians, leaving us to knock on the gates of the new Rome. Even know we are somewhere in between: we have toppled Milosevic, set fire to our own Parliament and extradited a former president but we still have not been granted the right to sit at the table of equal nations which direct their own affairs. We are the subject of jeers: two days ago the "London Times" published a letter from a reader proposing that the Americans offer Afghanistan money in exchange for bin Laden then goes on to add cynically "but maybe the Afghanis are as not as greedy for dollars as the Serbs".
The Americans not only bombed us in violation of international law: the Americans must be the only aggressor in our history arrogant enough to attempt to convince us that they were doing so for the noblest of reasons and for our own good. This trampled our very humanity: if it were not for these cynical arguments, perhaps we would have also admitted that no other aggressor before them invested as much effort into reducing "collateral damage", which is normal military jargon for innocent victims.
But what happened to the Americans last Tuesday happened to them for the very reason that within their own borders they represent an open, free society such as those of us here in the Balkans would like to live in as well. The terrorists hatched their plot on American soil, where they were protected by constitutional freedoms guaranteed to American citizens. The CIA was not successful in infiltrating bin Laden's group but bin Laden easily infiltrated American society, where his supporters who were foreign citizens easily made use of its openness: they rented houses, acquired documents, made useful contacts and where the state did not tape their telephone conversations. Even in the days of greatest hysteria the Americans have shown no inclination to compromise on their civil liberties in exchange for greater safety; unfortunately, they have not demonstrated the same degree of enthusiasm with respect to the behavior of their country outside its own borders. Only 39 percent are prepared to accept taping of their private conversations by the state but 65 percent presently believe that the CIA should be given the right to kill citizens of other countries in its secret operations.
It would be hard to find a Serb who would not like to have the same civil rights and guaranteed freedoms as the Americans. This should be possible and achievable for citizens of those countries which don't have cruise missiles and don't impose global economic systems on others dictating who will produce what and how much they will pay them for it. That is why we have so many deeply contradictory sentiments about the Americans today. Their battle for democracy and human rights is our battle, too. What is not good for the Americans is not good for us, either. The fact that they will be setting aside even more money for weapons than in the past is not in our best interests, either.
To the extent that what happened in America last Tuesday is our tragedy, too, today we are all Americans.
Translated by S. Lazovic (Sep. 18, 2001) --------------------------------------------------------------------