Paul Greenberg

Europe hadn't seen anything like it since the Einsatzgruppen moved through Poland and Russia in the early days of the Second World War hunting Jews, Communists, intellectuals or anybody who might be mistaken for such. The victims were usually shot by the side of their mass graves. But that was before German thoroughness transformed ordinary butchery into a modern, efficient, scientific process involving railroad timetables, special units, gas chambers and a vast assembly line stretching across the whole extent of the Nazi conquest.

There was nothing scientific or efficient about the murder and rapine at Srebrenica in 1995; they were the old-fashioned kind, prompted by nothing but hatred and brutality. Once again John Calvin's description of the human condition without grace was borne out: total depravity.

Among all the memories of the massacre, the most haunting image may be that of the Bosnian Serb commander patting a young boy on the head and assuring him: "You have nothing to fear. You will all be evacuated." That was July 12, 1995. They were all evacuated, all right -- to their graves. More than 500 of the 8,000 murdered at Srebrenica were boys under the age of 18.

As usual in these horrific cases, the UN's Kofi Annan was supposed to have been in charge. His list of honors is impressive: Rwanda in 1994, Srebrenica in 1995, and naturally enough the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. The worse the UN's performance, the more its secretary-general was honored.

Serbia's courts having done their duty with dispatch, Ratko Mladvic now has been sent to stand trial at The Hague. It was a contingent of Dutch troops, 300 strong, or rather 300 weak, who were supposed to assure Srebrenica's safety but only stood by and watched as the bloodbath there proceeded uninterrupted.

As for NATO, it responded in much the same futile way, dropping a grand total of two (2) bombs on the Serbian forces as they moved in to do their dirty work. Tell us again why those threatened by the killers of the world should put their trust in multilateral forces. Just as they're doing today in Libya, and paying heavily for it.

The international tribunal in the Netherlands, like those Dutch troops at Srebrenica, tends to move with a lot more deliberation than speed. That's why it's highly unlikely justice will ever be fully done in the case of Ratko Mladic. Lest we forget, his leader at the time in Belgrade, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, died peacefully in custody before he could be convicted by the international war-crimes court at The Hague. And the trial of General Mladic's old comrade, Radovan Karadzic, still proceeds at a pace that would make a snail's look brisk. The general is more likely to die of old age than by any sentence of the court. But at least he is no longer free.

Srebrenica is the story not just of the evil that men do but the evil they let be done. When the West wasn't giving its consent by a studied silence, it was blaming both victim and aggressor with fine impartiality. That was essentially the non-response of the nonentity who was American secretary of state at the time, one Warren Minor Christopher. In European capitals, the formal condemnations of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans remained wholly abstract, unmarred by any action to prevent it. And so it went. Very badly.

How little we have learned since Srebrenica. See the empty statements out of the White House as the bloodbath in Libya continues, and Misrata becomes the Guernica of our time, only without a Picasso to memorialize it.

C.S. Lewis said it: "The greatest evil is not done in those sordid dens of evil that Dickens loved to paint but is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices."

Yes, there were a few who protested as the atrocity in Srebrenica was being prepared. Senators like Joe Lieberman and Richard Lugar voiced the counsel of conscience, but they were no match for the forces of inertia that gripped official Washington at the time. Just as there are only a few voices, like John McCain's and again Joe Lieberman's, appealing for action and not just words when it comes to helping the Libyans today.

Once again those voices are being ignored. Free Libya remains unrecognized in Washington; its army may have all the volunteers it needs but they go into pointless battle without the kind of equipment, support or even diplomatic recognition they need to promptly end the dictator's reign and therefore his depredations.

This much good the massacre at Srebrenica accomplished: The world, and especially Washington, could no longer ignore its duty after what had happened there. Even the UN showed some embarrassment over the kind of "peace-keeping" operation it was running. And finally NATO, led by the United States, began to move, to bomb, to save the innocent and punish the guilty. Till the Serbians themselves rose in shame and revolution, and cleansed their country's name.

Let's hope the Libyans don't have to wait that long for liberation.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.