Slandering a whole nation with no legal recourse to libel suits.
As great clouds of toxic smoke settled over northern Serbia from the bombing of the country's petrochemical and other industries, moral indignation rose among the chorus of editorialists, columnists, and NATO officials justifying the bombing. Causing discomfort to civilians was no longer merely to get them to overthrow Milosevic, but to punish them for not having done so.
"Much has been made, unwisely in my view," wrote columnist William Pfaff, "of NATO's being in conflict only with Serbia's leaders. Serbia's leaders have been elected by the Serbian people.... Serbian voters have kept Slobodan Milosevic in power during the past decade. It is not clear why they should be spared a taste of the suffering he has inflicted on their neighbors."
So, there were two possibilities. Either Milosevic was a "dictator," and the Serbian people had to be liberated from him by bombing. Or else, as it turns out, he was not a dictator, and the Serbian people had to be given a "taste of suffering" for having elected him. Either way, Serbia must be bombed. The possibility that, if the dictator was not a dictator, some of the other accusations leveled against Serbia were equally distorted, was not to be considered.
As NATO was stepping up its bombing of Yugoslavia, Newsweek published an article by Rod Nordland entitled "Vengeance of a Victim Race" that reached a summit of anti-Serb racism not easily surpassed. "The Serbs are Europe's outsiders, seasoned haters raised on self-pity," this writer proclaimed. "Serbs are expert haters," the article informed readers, citing as evidence a "torrent of gutter invective about Bill Clinton's sex life" on commercial TV in Serbia (without benefit of Jay Leno). No evidence is needed when it comes to slandering a whole nation with no legal recourse to libel suits.
For people familiar with the historic stoicism of the Serbs, their characteristic reserve about their own troubles and their remarkable sense of black humor-a great antidote to self-pity-all this pontificating about Serbs' supposed "victim" complex appears anything but innocent.
Among the propaganda techniques used for years to destroy any public sympathy in the West for the Serbian people is the persistent negative characterization of Serbian culture, national myth and mentality as uniquely peculiar, marked by a strange delusion of being "victims." This technique of pre-emptive denigration prepares the public to dismiss such facts as Serbia's extraordinary loss of population in World War I, the authentic genocide practiced against the Serbs by the fascist Croatian Ustashe during World War II, and periodic Albanian efforts to push Serbs out of Kosovo as mere manifestations of a national mental illness. If a person or group is earmarked for victimization, what better way to head off foreseeable sympathy than by proclaiming loud and long that the individual or group always complains of being "victimized." In this way, ears will be deafened to their cries and hearts hardened to their fate.
Anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Jews as self-pitying whiners as the Nazis rounded them up for the gas chambers.
The NATO line was to justify destroying Yugoslavia by comparing it to Nazi Germany and Milosevic to Hitler. In a Memorial Day address, Clinton claimed that Milosevic's government "like that of Nazi Germany rose to power in part by getting people to look down on people of a given race and ethnicity, and to believe they had ... no right to live."
Meanwhile, the work went on of making people look down on Serbs and even to question whether Serbs had the right to live.
As the bombing intensified, and the more gung-ho of the NATO warriors (notably the British) pressed for a ground invasion, Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen came along with the ultimate justification not only for a "taste of suffering," but also for conquest and occupation of Serbia, by likening the displacement of Kosovo's civilians to the Holocaust, Milosevic to Hitler, and the Serbian people to "Hitler's willing executioners," to use the title of the book that gained him his notoriety as "genocide expert." Goldhagen's premise is that, like Germany and Japan in the early 1940s, Serbia in the 1990s "has been waging brutal imperial war, seeking to conquer area after area, expelling unwanted populations, and perpetrating mass murder."
This Harvard scholar builds a structure of assumptions on nothing more solid than erroneous impressions gleaned from years of distorted media coverage of the Balkans. The house of cards goes like this: Milosevic was an "extreme nationalist" and a "genocidal killer." He and the Serbian people were "beholden to an ideology which called for the conquest of Lebensraum," they were in the grip of "dehumanizing beliefs." In pursuit of "an eliminationist project" they set out to eliminate the Albanian population of Kosovo, in an action reminiscent of the Holocaust. Therefore, the only remedy is the same remedy as that applied to Nazi Germany: Serbia must be conquered, de-Nazified and reeducated by the West.
These assumptions are all false. Of course, innocence is always harder to prove than guilt. The Inquisitor knows that everyone is guilty of something. The Serbian people cannot all be blameless for everything, as they would probably be the first to confess. But neither are they, or even Milosevic, guilty of everything that has gone wrong in the Balkans for the past decade. The disintegration of Yugoslavia is a complex event with multiple causes which can reasonably be debated for some time by honest scholars. Other leaders who share responsibility for the disaster have had an interest in putting all the blame on their Serbian adversary.
Blaming Milosevic has distracted attention from the responsibility of all the others.