ONE DAY there will be a plaque marking the spot along the Drina River where Bosnian children were placed under the treads of tanks to be crushed by Serbian guerrillas.
One day there will be a documentary showing how Serbian snipers in the hills around Sarajevo used to train their rifles on the city's cemeteries, picking off mourners as they lowered their dead into graves.
One day there will be memorials to the victims of Susica and Foca and Prijedor and Trnopolje, where Serbian troops herded Muslim civilians into camps to be systematically raped, beaten, and killed.
One day there will be grim museum exhibits on "'Ethnic Cleansing' in Europe, 1992-96." There will be large maps showing where the "safe zones" were that NATO wouldn't defend. There will be panels bearing Bill Clinton's declaration of June 1992: "The Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina . . . must end. It is time for America . . . to exert strong leadership in putting a halt to the Serb-led aggression in the Balkans."
One day there will be college lectures on how the United States and the Western powers failed to stop Europe's bloodiest war in half a century, failed once more to perceive that dictators bent on conquest can never be appeased; only defeated.
One day. But not just yet. The conquest of Bosnia isn't finished. There are still civilians for the Serbs to slaughter, hospitals for them to blow up, hamlets for them to obliterate. The Bosnian Muslims aren't all dead yet. For the little time they have left, they are still on their feet, still fighting, still gasping for the civilized world to help them fend off a barbaric enemy.
But the civilized world would rather not get involved. Like the neighbors of Kitty Genovese on that long-ago night in Queens, N.Y., the civilized world sees what is going on, hears the cries, knows well what hideous crime is taking place -- but doesn't want to interfere.
Unlike other barbarities in other places and times, no one can ever say we were unaware of the evil that was done in Yugoslavia. The documentation has been meticulous, copious, and excruciating. (Sample State Department dispatch, dated July 1992: "The Serbian group then cut off the heads of the six prisoners, a process that took about three minutes. The time was about 4:15 p.m. They threw the bodies into the Drina River. About a half hour later, a van arrived with another eight Muslims. They were killed in the same manner. Women and children were included in a third group that was brought to the bridge about 7 p.m. The killing went on through much of the night.")
We know what is happening. We just choose not to stop it. We tell ourselves it isn't our fight. Our interests aren't at risk. This is a "civil war" fueled by "ancient rivalries," too tangled to make sense of, let alone end. So we said, more or less, when the Fascists invaded Ethiopia in 1935. When Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia in 1938. When Saddam gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988. We fretted and dithered when we should have acted. The price of our abdication was steep.
It will be again.
Maybe it wasn't clear just what was at stake in 1991, when Slovenia was being strafed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav air force. Maybe it wasn't clear when the Serbs were bombing Vukovar and Dubrovnik to ruins. Maybe it wasn't clear the first six or eight times that Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia's Communist tyrant, broke a cease-fire to which he (and his proxies in Croatia and Bosnia) had solemnly agreed.
But when Serbian mortar shells exploded in the midst of a Sarajevo bread line in May 1992, wasn't it evident? Or when the term "rape camp" entered the lexicon? Or when the thousandth Bosnian mosque was demolished?
Aggressors not stopped are aggressors emboldened. What does it take to drive that truth home? NATO's "no-fly zones" are violated with contempt. The Bosnian Serb thug-in-chief, Radovan Karadzic, sneers at Western threats: "If they bomb me, I'll bomb London. There are Serbs in London. There are Serbs in Washington." United Nations peacekeepers are seized, shackled, and humiliated. An American pilot and his F-16 are blown out of the sky.
We -- the West, the United States -- are at war. Or rather, war has been declared on us. It is time we declared war and fought back.
Are our national interests not at stake? Masses of civilians are being butchered in the heart of Europe. Armies of conquest are on the march. The fundamental principles of Western society -- the ones we all realize, deep down, we have to defend -- are being flouted by genocidal brutes who defy us to stop them. Are we going to do nothing?
We can wait until Zepa falls, and Bihac, and Sarajevo. We can wait for Bosnia to die. For Kosovo to explode. For other minor-league Hitlers, encouraged by the green light we have given Milosevic, to commence their own "ethnic cleansing."
But the longer we wait, the higher the cost. The rape of Bosnia is not some quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. It is a challenge to the very rules on which civilization depends. Its victims are not Bosnians alone. We, too, are threatened.