Global Guilt Complexes

As the world lowers the curtain on the war-strewn 1900s, some airing of responsibility is taking place over who might have stopped two of the century's worst wrongs.

The United Nations, in two recent reports, lays out moral blame for two massacres: the 1995 killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica and the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 people in Rwanda.

Little justice has been served on the killers or their masters in these atrocities. So instead, the UN reports' main task is to engage in soul-searching and finger-pointing, all to prevent such tragedies in the 21st century.

But how the blame is assigned is a signal as to how to avoid future slaughters. Was the UN at fault? Should the world's sole superpower have done more? Did neighboring states neglect their neighborly duty?

Similar questions about the moral responsibility of outsiders have long been asked about the Holocaust. It's obvious that the answers weren't sufficient. Fresh questions, too, have been asked recently about the massive starvation of Ukrainians by Stalin in 1932-33, the Mao-inspired famine of Chinese in 1958-60, and Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields of 1975-78.

These global guilt complexes over 20th century atrocities are something new for humanity. It's as if we now live in a planetary glass bowl, where any large tragedy anywhere can be seared quickly in anyone's conscience, demanding action.

Lack of action - or, putting other priorities above saving human lives - is the UN's main complaint about Rwanda and Srebrenica.

For Rwanda, it faults "the international community" for a "lack of resources and political will." It specifically faults the Security Council, Secretary General Kofi Annan (who was then head of peacekeeping forces), the US, and Belgium (whose forces were on the ground).

The Srebrenica report blames "the pervasive ambivalence within the UN regarding the role of force in the pursuit of peace." It also cites the UN's "prism of 'moral equivalency' " that treated victims and victimizers alike.

In essence, this kind of hindsight morality is calling for pre-slaughter morality. But in the post-cold-war 1990s - where the US now dominates and the UN is weak - who defines that morality, who should act on it, and who's willing to risk lives to act?

Unfortunately, the answers are coming tragedy by tragedy. NATO's attack in Kosovo in 1999 showed how the world must labor to find a "coalition of the willing" to act against evil.

Along with these UN reports, that's a long, trying trail to define our global humanity. We need a quicker way to form a consensus among nations.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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