Why intervening is right

(an article originally printed in the April 25, 1999 Bimingham News)

On the anniversary of the April 8, 1998 tornado that devastated the Oak Ridge community just twenty miles north of Birmingham, I spoke to a group of local architects about the role designers might play in rebuilding communities devastated by natural or manmade disasters.

I told them of architects I had met in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992-95, who had worked so hard to maintain a beautiful city only to see it destroyed before their eyes. I showed slides of the damage inflicted upon many of Sarajevo's monumental structures and reflected with appreciation upon the fact that Birmingham's architectural heritage is still largely intact.

The architects asked searching questions about the mental condition and capabilities of their colleagues in Sarajevo. How could the people rebuild after such a calamity? Who or what was responsible for the destruction? Is the same human being or ideology responsible for atrocities in both Bosnia and Kosovo? They wanted to know about the religious aspects: How could people who call themselves Christians participate in behavior so heinous as ethnic cleansing?

I suspect my presentation produced more questions than answers. Still, it was reassuring to discuss the growing Balkan tragedy with people imaginative enough to grasp something of what it would be like to undergo deprivations and hardship of the sort I had witnessed. It left me thinking that perhaps architects harbor proprietary feelings toward all infrastructure, not just their own. How much less likely war would be if more people had an innate urge to protect rather than destroy all those things so laboriously designed and constructed.

As an eyewitness to the effects of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I was anxious to explain why we must not turn our backs on its reoccurrence in Kosovo, where hundreds of thousands of refugees from Serb aggression are fleeing for their lives. After seeing the vast destruction in so many communities of Bosnia, and hearing of so much more of the same in Kosovo, I felt compelled to remind the architects how important their contribution is to society. We discussed the possibility of architects from Birmingham partnering with architectural firms in Sarajevo and other devastated areas. It seems appropriate that Birmingham should lead the way in helping to restore communities wracked by ethnic strife.

We talked about Birmingham and how a kind of Balkanization typical among neighboring communities the world over holds us back and threatens our environmental well being. In Bosnia, as in Birmingham, farsighted leaders must emphasize common interests in order to gain broad support for sustainable community building, rather than allow debate to focus on divisive issues.

The problems we face in Birmingham are great; many wondered why we should involve ourselves in enforcing peace in Bosnia, and now Kosovo. What purpose does it serve us? Where does our national interest lie?

Like it or not, the world is a much smaller place than it was a generation ago. Communications technology makes it impossible for us to ignore injustice on a grand scale. When an American spy satellite spots the preparation of mass graves in Kosovo, and our representatives debate NATO's options, it is not only a CNN audience that watches--history will judge our actions, or inaction.

The Roosevelt administration was able to maintain plausible deniability of its knowledge of the Holocaust, abrogating its moral responsibility in favor of a dubious realpolitik. "Never again," an unsuspecting American populace cried in outrage at war's end, upon viewing film footage of the Nazi death camps. Yet, barely fifty years later, the same Allied powers that defeated Hitler sat back and allowed Serb militiamen to walk through NATO barricades protecting the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica and systematically butcher virtually the entire male population of 15,000.

The cameras are rolling. The whole world is watching as Kosovo burns and widows straggle into the refugee camps to recount horrid memories all too vivid to their traumatized children and all too familiar to a world that did little to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia until it was a fait accompli.

Humanity has entered an age where the timely transfer of knowledge enables wordwide commercial interaction. That same capability mandates a broader concept of community. We are still "our brother's keeper," only, now, the family is larger. That is as it should be, in a world dominated by transnational corporations owned primarily by American and European stockholders, where First World economists and intellectuals tout democracy and capitalism as the twin pillars upon which the Third World will lift itself out of poverty. But these things are hardly historical imperatives. It is in our best interest to show the way.

Everyone loses in a climate where lawlessness and pillaging go unstopped. As a "melting-pot" nation grown to the position of undisputed world leader, it rightly falls to the U.S. to lead by example, to rally irresistible force against any tyrant guilty of ethnic crimes like the ones we have seen in Bosnia and now Kosovo. The $300 billion we spend yearly to equip our military with massive global punch should be redirected to productive means if we intend to run from the obligation our ideals impart or become an isolationist nation.

There is no middle ground, morally or politically. We will lead because it is in our national interest to lead. NATO's credibility and very existence hang in the balance. And it's not just the future that will judge us. Our friends and enemies alike are watching our every move, to gauge our resolve.

If we must put troops on the ground in Kosovo, we will do it because there is no other way. They will go to battle proudly, as their grandfathers did in Europe and the Pacific, to save lives and right great wrongs.

Once the battle is won, it will take equal resolve to achieve rapprochement among the inhabitants of a repopulated Kosovo and her neighbors. President Truman brought Europe up from the ashes with the highly aggressive and innovative Marshall Plan, financed by U.S. aid. We have been repaid many times over for our investment, through the goodwill of allies made and the expansion of markets for our goods.

A brighter vision for the Balkans requires a comprehensive strategy that necessarily includes a regional plan for rebuilding in a way that promotes cooperation among various ethnic groups.

International ground forces deployed in a free Kosovo must enforce a protectorate under a temporary administrator mandated to provide immediate humanitarian aid, prevent further ethnic violence, secure legal borders and assist in the return of refugees, in order that the region be prepared for democratic self-administration. Such a protectorate would also assist The Hague Tribunal in investigating those suspected of participating in crimes committed in Kosovo.

On the regional level, the rebuilding process should include a permanent international conference on the Balkans, in order to empower opinion makers and institutions committed to multicultural social and economic development. Planners from the United States and European Union can assist them in building their own model for developing peace, cooperation and democracy in the region. A rebuilding plan where each group is invested in the success of all will promote economic unity.

Such plans might seem idealistic, but they will come to be seen as indispensable. I hope the many talented architects and land planners of Birmingham get the opportunity to help.

(James Craig is director of the Global Network for Rebuilding and can be reached at bbtf@alabama.com or 1-205-933-2159. He wrote this for The News.)

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