Tolerating Atrocity

SERBIA'S brutal "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia has been going on since May. The barbarity of the crimes has been known in every world capital since June. But only recently has the heinous nature of the acts been fully understood.

Journalists in Bosnia have persistently found savagery beyond the telling. They have shown that early ethnic cleansing was a form of "elitocide" - killing off the educated, thoughtful Muslims who could have led a resistance. Former US Secretary of State George Shultz was filled with "a sense of fury" when reading of systematic internment and rapes of girls and women in Bosnia.

Decent people find it hard to live with such atrocity. As Mr. Shultz put it, "When forces of intolerance go wild, you get a result that is intolerable."

Yet so far the West has tolerated the wildness. Intervention was ruled out in favor of the joint United Nations-European Community talks in Geneva. But Western leaders have lost faith in them. Last week, US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger indicated this by naming war criminals from the former Yugoslavia, including Serb President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadizc.

Mr. Eagleburger seeks enforcement of the "no fly" zone over Bosnia. This made for tough talk and high drama - especially after UN mediator Cyrus Vance disagreed with the no-fly zone enforcement. But step away from the headlines, and what has actually happened? The answer: Little. All the essential problems in Bosnia remain. Indeed, they are worse. Facts on the ground have changed since the summer. Serbs are no longer trying to take 70 percent of Bosnia: They now have it. Mr. Milosevic also now knows the West won't act.

The enormity of "ethnic cleansing" has sunk in, but doing something about it has now become more complicated. Delay has cost. Reiterating the decree of a no-fly zone and shooting down a few planes will do little. Even lifting the arms embargo to let Muslims defend themselves is late. Nor can the West afford to act just to seem engaged, since even a minor scrape could give either side a pretext for starting something bigger.

Western action now will require a more serious effort. Doing nothing out of concern that the cost might be great has ensured that the cost will be great. Unchecked, ethnic cleansing is a mentality of systematic hatred more dangerous by far than found among, say, Somalia's war lords. It is a dynamic that could spread east, beyond Yugoslavia; it already has adherents in Russia.

The question isn't, What is the cost? The question is, Can the West deal with aggressive evil?

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