FROM KOSOVO TO COLORADO

MAY 23, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

Some colleagues and parishioners have asked me what affect the conflict in Kosovo has had on the Hungarian minority living in Transylvania, Romania. That is a very understandable question in the light of the fact that Kosovo and Serbia are bordered by seven independent states—Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Croatia and the province of Montenegro. So far our Hungarian/Unitarian brothers and sisters living in Transylvania have not been adversely affected by the conflict in Kosovo. But the fact remains that they could be if the Serbs should decide to move against the Hungarians of Vojvodina (in northern Serbia) who are the only sizable ethnic minority left in that purged nation. Should that happen Hungary could very well be drawn into the conflict which could then spark off a greater conflagration in surrounding countries and then possibly the rest of Europe. It is indeed a grim scenario.

Emery Lazar, writing in the Partner Church Council newsletter, notes that "the main concern of (Unitarian Hungarians in Transylvania) is that any relief effort identifying Romania’s ethnic Hungarians as the principal participants (in offering aid and relief to Kosovar refugees) could be used in a harmful propaganda campaign against them. Romanian ultra-nationalists already have placed stories in the media comparing ‘separatist Hungarians’ with ‘separatist Albanians,’ raising the specter of a domino effect in that part of Europe." The fact of the matter is that "many Romanians feel a much closer affinity to their Serbian Eastern Orthodox brethren than to the ‘separatist Albanians.’" Although the government of Romania has so far more or less cooperated with the NATO objective in Kosovo, and has given lip service to accepting Kosovar refugees, it has yet to articulate any clear policy guidelines for offering relief. It is an uncertain situation at best and we can only hope and pray that the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" political psychosis will not spread to Romania or to other surrounding nations.

I find myself as a religious and political liberal who was vehemently opposed to the war in Vietnam, being of two minds about our involvement in the NATO campaign against Serbia and Slobadan Milosevich. Unlike the UN action against Iraq in Kuwait the United States has little to no political and economic self-interest in Kosovo. There’s no oil to be lost to a political madman like Saddam Hussein, nor a threat to Israeli or Mideast security. We have a different kind of political madman in the person of Milosevich, but he is not insane and he knows exactly what he is doing. In spite of the NATO bombing campaign he has carried out his policy of ethnic cleansing with a deliberate speed and ferocity that staggers the imagination.

There were around two million ethnic Albanians living in Kosovo when we began our bombing campaign a couple of months or more ago. Nearly half of them have been driven out, many of them executed and buried in mass graves, and their villages torched and burned to the ground. The French humanitarian group, Doctors Without Borders, describes the forced deportation of Kosovar refugees as "the efficiently planned erasure (effacement) of a people." Refugees were "systematically deprived of their papers of identity, passports, birth and marriage records, and property titles." Their intention was clear—to show "that they no longer belonged to Kosovo, never did, and would never return." If our objectives were to stop the ethnic cleansing and protect the people of Kosovo, very admirable and moral objectives which I support, then the campaign has clearly failed. We have done neither. I am reminded of the Vietnam officer, who was quoted as saying, "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." Is that what we have come to in Kosovo and Serbia?

I was struck by an editorial from the syndicated columnist, William Pfaff, who notes that previous generations of American policy makers were determined to allow "no more Munichs" (meaning giving in to the aggressive designs of potential Hitlers), a policy which led to the Vietnam War. The determination of the current Washington generation is to allow "no more Vietnams", which, Pfaff says, "only seems to promise another Munich." The NATO policy of bombing Milosevich into compliance is based on the experience of Munich (giving in to potential Hitlers), while the stated unwillingness to back up that policy with ground troops is based on the experience of Vietnam (not getting drawn into a conflict we cannot end nor clearly win). Bombing alone has never won a war. To date we have yet to win this one. We have reached the point where we have unintentionally bombed the Chinese embassy, damaged Swedish and Norwegian diplomatic residences, hit a hospital and a jail, killed scores of Kosovar refugees who may have been used as bomb shields, and most recently we bombed KLA rebels who were fighting against Serb forces. The more we bomb the more such incidents will occur.

I admit that a part of me is quite convinced by the views of Gen. Powell, Sen. John McCain, and British Prime Minister, Tony Blair—the necessity of ground troops to finish the job. One thing you never do in war is to tell your enemy what you will or will not do. By telling the Serbs in advance that we had no intentions or plans of sending ground troops into Kosovo we encouraged them to implement their policy of ethnic cleansing and to dig in their troops for the long haul in case we should change our minds. If we are eventually forced to send in troops in hopes of rescuing a failed policy more lives will be lost than if we had sent them there in the first place. To introduce troops at this stage in the conflict, however, may lead to further alienation of Russia and China and lead to a split in NATO itself. The other option may be to let Milosevich win a partial victory—perhaps a partition of Kosovo—which is certainly less than what NATO has been demanding. That may be the best we can get without destroying a country in order to save it. There are certainly no easy answers to this Balkan nightmare. The only thing that seems certain in all of this is that violence inevitably leads to more violence and that once you start it is ever so difficult to stop.

From the conflict in Kosovo we move to the violence in Colorado. It is impossible to look at one without looking at the other. A 14 year old Unitarian Universalist youth, Alexis, made the following observation on the UUA web site:

Last night I sat in front of the TV trying to soak in all of the events that have transpired. CNN presented their choice footage, interviews, and such from Colorado, and followed it with a speech from President Clinton. He said that we need to teach our children to ‘use words not weapons’ to solve our problems. Ironically (or maybe not…), the Kosovo piece came next—news of NATO’s bombing.

Irony indeed! We live in a violent culture and a violent world. The one is a reflection of the other. Theologian and ethicist, James Luther Adams, used to make the point time and time again that you cannot divorce the personal from the political—what is personal is also political and vice-versa. I am reminded of what a mentally ill paranoid patient at the Boston State Hospital once told me when I worked there as a psychiatric aid. He said that the conflict in the outer world at the Berlin wall was literally happening inside his own soul. He knew it was so because he could feel it. The personal is political and the political is personal. When those two disturbed young men, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, dressed in black trench coats, walked into the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and shot and killed a teacher and 12 of their classmates, the personal became political and the political became personal in a big way.

A further irony in the linkage between Kosovo and Colorado is that Eric Harris once wrote an essay in his English class in which he portrayed himself as a shotgun shell. Ellen Goodman reports that the teacher was so worried about Eric’s violent state of mind that she went to discuss the matter with Eric’s father. But after learning "that Mr. Harris was a retired Air Force officer and this his son hoped to enlist in the military, she concluded that the essay was consistent with his future career aspirations." When Eric heard that the U.S. was on the verge of bombing Yugoslavia he told a fellow classmate, "I hope we do go to war. I’ll be the first one there." Here’s the irony. It was only "after his rejection by the Marines", after he tried to join, that Eric "Harris turned his high school into a war zone."

I was moved by the fact that the Rev. Joel Miller, minister of the Columbine UU Church, just one block from the high school, was the first clergyman on the scene, offering prayers and support to parents, teachers, students and strangers. He had the decency and courage to visit and pray not only with families of those whose children were killed, but also the homes and families of the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, for which he was criticized. As he and the members of his church drove by the corner where the memorial service for the victims was to be held, they observed protesters carrying large signs saying, "Faggots killed them." They were, of course outraged. He appeared on television and spoke out against the too easy access to guns in our society and received threatening phone calls from gun advocates, and also from fundamentalist Christians, for not advocating mandatory prayers to God and Jesus in the public schools. He thanked UU’s from all across the country for their moral and spiritual support and asked them to work for the growth and endurance of Unitarian Universalism wherever they lived. I have decided to send him $100 from my Minister’s Emergency Fund to be used in any way he sees fit--to help those who may need assistance because of this tragic episode, or to establish a fitting memorial at Columbine High School. If you would like to add a contribution of your own for that purpose, you may leave your dollars or checks in the basket on the Service Committee table.

The fall out from the tragic shooting has been fast and frightening. Five 14 year olds in Texas were charged with plotting to murder teachers and fellow students. They had hoped to exceed the number of killings at Columbine. In Conyers, Georgia a 15-year-old youth wounds six of his classmates after having broken up with his girl friend. In Acton, Mass. a female student caused $1 million of damage when she deliberately set the school on fire. Five Sandwich boys—ages 13 to 16—were charged with setting off homemade explosives in the middle of their neighborhood. A Wrenthem high school student was arrested after threatening one of his teachers. In Cohasset a student wrote a message on the restroom wall: "You Will Die On May 6." Not surprisingly, scores of students stayed away from school that day.

My friends, if it could happen in Cohasset, it could happen in Norwell or Hanover, in Hingham or Hanson. I recently received a letter from the Norwell schools Superintendent’s Office inviting me to participate in a community focus group to explore ways to make our schools and community a safer and more tolerant environment. I intend to answer in the affirmative. I now know, if I didn’t know before, that what is crazy and violent out there in our culture can erupt here as well as anywhere.

By the way, it should be noted that the use of guns and shootings of young people in our streets and schools has been going on in the predominantly black neighborhoods of our urban cities for quite a number of years. It was only when this epidemic of violence erupted in white suburbia, which thought it was safe from such happenings, that Congress was moved to take political action. Black political commentators like to say it’s the chickens coming home to roost.

The political fall out has been interesting to observe. After failing to pass tougher gun control legislation the Republican dominated Senate got the message and reversed itself. Background checks will now be required of all purchasers at gun shops, pawn shops and gun shows, and locks will now be necessary equipment on all new hand gun purchases. Elizabeth Dole had the courage to resist the N.R.A. hold on the Republican Party. She said that further controls and locks and background checks were needed to protect the lives of our children. She got booed for speaking her mind to a conservative crowd, but to coin a phrase, she stuck to her guns, and helped change the political climate. Thank you, Liddy!

I know that some of you don’t agree with this view. We can agree to disagree, but I don’t mind saying that I believe we need to go much further to limit the access of guns to those who should not have them. We can begin by requiring registration of all guns in this country—something that is anathema to the N.R.A. Out of all the major western nations only the United States and the Czech Republic do not require registration of firearms purchased by their citizens. If we are required to register our dogs and boats and cars, and require hunting and fishing licenses, we can certainly require registration of each and every firearm. It would help immensely in tracing guns used in crimes. And while we’re at it, let’s hold parents at least partly accountable for the actions of their teenage children, and let’s raise the age requirement for purchase of guns to 21 in every state of the union.

Yes, it may be "inconvenient" to require background checks, and gun locks, and registration of firearms, but a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for greater safety and the saving of lives that would otherwise be lost. I have no illusions that such measures will completely stop acts of violence by those who are fully intent on doing so, but we can lessen the number of such acts by changing the political, social and mental environment of our violence prone culture. The political is personal, and the personal is political.

That 14-year-old youth, Alexis, saw this clearly and offered this further bit of wisdom from her astute young mind:

Our society is desperately trying to save America’s youth from violence, drugs, and other problems. We shake our heads not knowing what to do. Is it so hard to find the solution because we are the problem? We need to promote tolerance, acceptance, and understanding—with parents, teachers, coworkers, fellow students, the government, the girl next door, and that scary kid in black. For after all, we are they.

 

I close with a prayer from my colleague, the Rev. Robert Walsh, minister of the First Parish in Duxbury, which he wrote for the Sunday after the tragedy in Littleton.

PRAYER AFTER LITTLETON

We have seen visions, we have heard stories, of children killing children, children wounding children, children armed for violence, acting out a fantasy of vengeance, cruelty and self-destruction.

O God who comes among us in the ancient stories as a child, O God whom we know in part because we have felt the presence of miracle and mystery in children, be with us as we fear for our children. We fear that they may be injured by forces that strain our understanding, forces that we do not know how to protect them from, forces that work their evil through such familiar presences as other children.

We fear that our children will be afraid, afraid of school, afraid of other children, afraid of the world, afraid of life. Perhaps the worst of our fears is that our children themselves will become carriers of the violence.

Help us to avoid the tempting conclusion that punishing someone is an adequate response to the brokenness of our times. There may be punishing to do, but that will not heal us or make us whole. What is required of us is the steady, frustrating, hard-to-figure-out, long-term work of loving our neighbor and caring for the children, all of the children. This is what we are called to do in the times between the crises, between the explosions of violence, between the shocking images. Help us find the wisdom and the courage to do that work.

Let our prayers and thoughts be with all the children who died in Littleton, Colorado, and those who were injured, and their families and friends, and their community in its sorrow. And in our individual lives, and as members of families, and in our collective work as members of a neighborhood and a town and a state and a nation, and as members of the human race, let us remember and care for all the children. Amen.