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Articles on the Kosovo Conflict


For services rendered – to the cause of folly

By Salman Rushdie
The Toronto Globe and Mail
May 7, 1999

In the battle for the hotly contested title of International Moron of the Year, two heavyweight contenders stand out.

One is the Australian writer Peter Handke, who has astonished even his work’s most fervent admirers by a series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic, and who, during a recent visit to Belgrade, received the Order of The Serbian Knight for his propaganda services.

Mr. Handke’s previous idiocies include the suggestion that Sarajevo’s Muslims regularly massacred themselves and then blamed the Serbs, and his denial of the genocide carried out by Serbs at Srebrenica. Now he likens the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s aerial bombardment to the alien invasion in the movie Mars Attacks! And then, foolishly mixing his metaphors, he compares the Serbs’ sufferings to the Holocaust.

His current rival in world-class folly is the movie star Charlton Heston. As president of the U.S. National Rifle Association, Mr. Heston’s response to the massacre of innocents recently perpetrated by young Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo, is a masterpiece of the moronic. He thinks America should arm its teachers and seems to believe that schools would be safer if staff had the power to gun down the children in their charge.

I will not draw glib parallels between NATO’s aerial bombardments and the Colorado killings. No, the larger violence did not breed the lesser. Nor should too much be read into the accidental echo between Mr. Milosevic’s Hitlerian tendencies and the lethal celebration of Hitler’s birthday by the so-called Trenchcoat Mafia, or the even more eerie assonance between the video game mentality of the Colorado killers and the real-life aerial videos the NATO publicists show us every day.

In the matter of the war let’s agree, too, that it’s okay to feel ambiguous about the confused, changing-policy-on-the-hoof manner of the NATO action. One minute we’re told Mr. Milosevic’s savage retaliatory assault on Kosovo couldn’t have been foreseen, the next minute we hear that it should have been. Or again. We’re not going to use ground troops. On second thought, maybe we are.

And our war aims? Strictly limited; we seek only to create a safe haven to which the Kosovar refugees can return. No, no, we’re going to march into Belgrade and get Milosevic; we’re not making that old Saddam mistake again. 

To object to vacillation and contradiction is not, however, the same thing as Mr. Handke’s half-crazy, half-cynical fellow-travelling with evil. The moral justification for NATO’s intervention is the humanitarian disaster we see on our televisions every night, and to blame NATO for the plight of the refugees is to absolve the Serb army of its crimes. It needs to be said again and again. The people to blame for death and terror are those who commit terrorism and murder. 

And in the matter of the Colorado killings, let us agree that guns aren’t the sole cause of the horror. The killers learned how to make pipe bombs on the Internet and got their trench coats from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, and learned to put a low value on human life from … whom? Their parents? Marilyn Manson? The Goths? 

Which is not at all to adopt Charlton Heston’s unrepentant position. “This isn’t a gun issue,” he tells us. “It’s a child issue.” Mr. Heston has had practice in the handing down of commandments. Thus, Thou shalt defend the right to bear arms in the teeth of all the evidence, and Thou shalt certainly not be blamed just because a few kids got iced. 

Kosovo and Colorado do have some things in common. They show that in our unstable world, incompatible versions of reality are clashing with one another, with murderous results. 

Which does not mean that we can’t make moral judgments about the rival versions of the world that are at war. And the only possible judgment of the Handke and Heston versions is that they are reprehensible, indefensible, and deserve to be destroyed. 

Who wins the prize? Peter Handke’s folly makes him complicit with evil on a grand scale but, fortunately, he is almost entirely powerless. As America’s foremost gun lobbyist, however, Mr. Heston is doing his best to make sure that guns remain an integral part of the American household, and so, one day soon, somewhere in America, another young man will take up arms and begin to shoot his friends.

By reason of his folly’s greater effectiveness, I hand Charlton Heston the palm. But the year’s not half done. Greater morons may yet step forward to challenge him. Watch this space.

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