This week, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic also known as the Butcher of Belgrade went on trial in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has resided there since last June, bitterly awaiting his fate and throwing out threats against his prosecutors.
A great many people have eagerly anticipated this moment, for an entire decade or so in fact. And who could blame them? Just think what this horrible little man did to wage war against his neighbors, destabilize the Balkans even as he tried to keep Yugoslavia together in his iron grip and terrorize the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. Serbia itself, under his leadership, was devastated territorially and economically. Belgrade alone sustained $30 billion worth of damage as a result of the NATO bombing campaign, which Milosevic called upon their heads in 1999. The wars of the Balkans in the 1990s left 200,000 people dead and 2 million displaced.
In my view, whatever Milosevic gets in the Hague and it will not be the death sentence, that much we know will be too good for him. He will be treated according to standards of civilization that he never himself recognized in his mad pursuit of power.
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica in a discussion of this “uncomfortable” topic with editors and reporters of The Washington Times last week, posed the question: “If we have grown enough to be part of European institutions, why should we not be able to take care of this ourselves?” That is, judge Milosevic. The court in The Hague is insufficient to deal with the number of criminals involved, so the president argued, and in any event, he himself had proposed a “truth and reconciliation commission,” similar to but not identical to the South African model, which was established in the spring of 2001. “The commission we proposed should engage in research in this period of our history.” Hmmm. And what about the reckoning?
There’s almost a temptation to say: Why should the Serbs not have a go at it themselves? After all, a number of us believed that the Chileans were entitled to deal with Augusto Pinochet. In South Africa, the peace and reconciliation commission established by Nelson Mandela has been praised for the job it has done exposing the evils of apartheid.
Evidently, no one trusts the Serbs to mete out punishment to the man they kept in power through so many calamities. Further, Serbian leaders with war crimes charges hanging over their heads are still at large in Serbia, undisturbed by the new reformist government.
Yet, war crimes tribunals are in themselves fascinating events that tend to pose profound questions, and no doubt the Milosevic trial will as well. Is justice being sought? Or is it revenge? Does the trial serve the cause of truth? Or only the victor’s truth? Who is qualified to judge the leader of another country? Are war crimes and crimes against humanity eternal and immutable? Or mere political constructs of the moment?
As the world watches Milosevic in the dock, he will probably seem ridiculous, possibly just ordinary and pathetic. Tyrants deprived of the trappings of power have a way of doing that. “The banality of evil” was the quality Hannah Arendt identified in the small bespectacled Nazi bookkeeper, Adolf Eichmann, who signed more papers to send Jews to concentration camps and gas chambers than anyone else.
Mr. Kostunica steered my attention to a gripping essay dated Nov. 9, 1945, by George Orwell, who is always worth reading. It is highly relevant to the current trial, having been written in anticipation of the Nazi Nuremberg trials. However, I don’t think for the reason Mr. Kostunica brought it up.
Titled “Revenge is Sour,” the essay deals with the British journalist’s visit to a prisoner of war camp in Southern Germany, prior to the Nuremberg trials. The conditions of the former Nazis and Waffen S.S. officers are so awful that his only feeling is pity. “Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing S.S. officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting,” Orwell writes.
“What this scene, and much else I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: As soon as the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.”
But the desire for revenge or justice is hardly likely to evaporate as a motive at the Milosevic trial. The man is too arrogant and snotty for that and he is too comfortable. Compared to the German prisoners of war, Milosevic is living like a prince in his cushy prison cell in The Hague.