Before my arrival in Serbia last month, I was warned by friends, strangers and even our very own Department of State: a “potential for hostility” toward Americans still existed. So I was a
bit apprehensive and unsure how best to conduct myself. Do I say I’m Canadian? Try to pass as Russian?
As it turns out, practically nobody was hostile to me, even in my original American form. The Serbs I met were friendly and helpful, eager to share their stories and hear mine. When the subject of the NATO bombing was broached, their response was almost always the same: “We have nothing against you, nothing against Americans … It’s only your government that did bad things to us.”
This struck me as a little odd. After all, I had grown up with the impression that the government was not some peculiar entity independent of America or of Americans. In fact, I had learned that governance was a two-way street, a contract of sorts between the leaders and the people.
The people-government dichotomy began to disturb me more when applied to events in Yugoslavia. Under this logic, responsibility for the horrendous crimes and murders and rapes of
the past 10 years could perhaps be shifted entirely to the Yugoslav government. Slobodan Milosevic — not ordinary Serbs — was completely to blame.
Then, by chance, I met another American student visiting Belgrade. I talked with her about the NATO bombing and, as I had done throughout my trip, I frequently used “we” to refer to, well, us: When we bombed Belgrade, when we destroyed that building. This bothered her.
She was against the military action, she told me with great vigor. Therefore, she didn’t use “we;” she could and did say “they.” When they bombed Belgrade, when they destroyed that
But it was our government, I protested. What did you do to stop the bombings? When our democratically-accountable government is killing people (with good or bad intentions), we as
citizens bear the responsibility. No words of opposition after the fact can provide an easy-out card.
Belief is different from action. Take, for example, the teachings of certain Christian faiths. I know several wonderful people who believe — strongly — that I’m going to Hell. The dear reader will note my use of capitalization — this is not the kind of hell where one spends a day or two in a bad state of emotional anguish. No, this is more of the eternal fiery damnation variety (do not pass go, do not collect $200), complete with tortured souls writhing in endless agony.
Frankly, that’s pretty serious stuff.
So, I would take issue with the good Christian folks who aren’t going all out to save me, the ones who value their weekend over my eternal salvation. My complaint about our cadre of
campus crusaders is that maybe they’re not doing enough. You’re telling me that I and a healthy chunk of the planet are going to Hell for how many millennia? And you plan on spending the next sixty years — negligible on God’s clock — working in an office and building a nice little nest egg?
It’s an interesting phenomenon, and to that I will add my caveat: I’m not automatically going to condemn everyone who condemns me. To be honest, I’m rather grateful that Jerry Falwell isn’t
competing with Sprint and First Capital Bank for the pleasure of a phone conversation with me.
But part of the college experience is discovering and developing our core values and beliefs and
then deciding which of these are important enough to us to warrant unabashed and unapologetic
action. Self-awareness is synonymous with self-honesty. Are non-Christians really Hell-bound? Is abortion truly murder? Is capitalism really such a negative worldwide force? Is offensive speech truly comparable to hateful acts?
Which issues have clear-cut moral lines and which are simply so complicated that we each must find a way to personally reconcile conflicting values? (I suspect most issues are the latter.) And for what actions are we responsible by default as consumers or citizens or individuals? In short, who really bombed Serbia?
Of course, there’s certainly no shame in the up-close and personal. Should downtown housing really be so shabby? Should tuition be rising so dramatically? Should the UW administration be
making so many of its important decisions over the summer?
(On a personal note, I can proudly say that the protection of non-smokers is one of the issues that arouses Ted Turnerian passions in me, and I can only hope that my editor does not eliminate my
occasional oddly-placed references to Philip Morris/Kraft/Miller as the great American purveyor of pure evil.)
In every case, the question becomes one of personal responsibility: what are we doing about all this?
This school year, as various campus groups go begging for active members, as myriad controversies predictably rock our university and nation and as student leaders bring forward initiatives that are threatened more by indifference than by opposition, I would humbly urge us all to remember that our personal responsibility extends far beyond the personal.
Bryant Walker Smith is a senior majoring in civil engineering.