As per Edmund Burke, those who cannot remember the past may well be doomed to repeat it. But so are those who do remember it; who remember it obsessively and minutely, who pore over its many defeats and setbacks, who almost savor the righteous grief provided by its catalogue of shrieks and horrors. The recent spate of vandalisms, desecrations, and passive-aggressive incursions around Kosovo and Southern Serbia is not due to any failure of memory.
The other night, I went with a group of internationals (to use the Pristina shorthand) to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained at ABC Cinema, and it was entertaining. A Spaghetti Western with mythic overtones, let’s say, or an exquisitely realized cartoon. A Siegfried fresco in bloody watercolors. A fun night out.
It also, of course, was a graphic illustration of the doctrine which holds that severe maltreatment justifies fantastical and gory acts of vengeance. After the movie, when we adjourned to Paddy O’Brien’s for the requisite beery round-table, a professor friend told us of his students’ near-total reluctance to see their own (Kosovar Albanian) heroes and myths as being at all similar to those of their historical opponents.
Is this a luxury, maybe? A self-doubting equivocation available only to the rich and peaceful? To the “West”? For these kids, the very idea that their stories and those of their enemies were in any way related, in terms of rhetoric and structure, to those of the Serbs was entirely unacceptable. Ridiculous on its face. A spectacular blasphemy.
In Kosovo, it seems almost socially necessary to believe that one’s own people have, for a series of cruel and unjust reasons, been defamed and assaulted in a near-infinite fashion by an essentially demonic opponent. An opponent that has no motivation save the perverse desire to inflict suffering. This is true, of course, for people on both sides of the conflict, and it is this supposed truth that serves to turn destructive actions into justified retaliation.
In the last week, an array of Serbian Orthodox cemeteries were desecrated, in the dark of night, by (one can only assume) Kosovar Albanians. Not to be outdone, Serbian gendarmes in the southern border region of Presevo took it upon themselves, at seven in the morning, to remove an “illegally erected” (quotes placed not to deny the claim, but to emphasize its innate ambiguity) monument to 27 ethnic Albanian insurgents killed during the Presevo Valley uprising of 2000.
This arguably cowardly series of events all take place as the leaders of both Kosovo and Serbia meet for a series of historic talks whose goal is to come to a solution regarding Kosovo’s still-unofficial independence. Though it is difficult (read: impossible) to imagine a solution that would satisfy the demands of both factions, it is encouraging to see this discussion happen over a table rather than a battlefield.
You have to wonder, though, why these things are occurring at the same time, and after months of relative quiet. Is there some sort of symmetry that we, on whatever internal level, require of these situations? If we apply a certain degree of calm and measured “dialogue” (to use the currently fashionable term) to a situation, must it be counter-balanced by a soupçon of late-night explosives and early-morning bulldozers? Is this how people are? Is this what can’t help but come into being?
As always, I guess, we want it all. We want peace and prosperity – in this case symbolized by international approval and promises of EU membership – but we also want victory and glory. We want calm and order, but we also want the spectacular destruction of our enemies.
These recent occurrences are unsettling. As they were designed to be. On one level, they feel like skirmishes, or minor conflagrations, but on another they feel like a prelude.
I don’t know the difference between these two circumstances, or these two states of being. It seems like one of those paradoxes, one of those zombie cat things. It seems like it is not yet determined, and that it will only become clear after some future action.
One can’t help but be somewhat worried. We like to think of ourselves as masters of our own histories, or our trajectories, but all too often we are slaves. We are slaves to our slanted memories, we are slaves to our selective readings, and we are slaves to our battle-hardened hearts. In situations of any complexity, we are very often slaves to ourselves.
What do slaves wish to do to their masters?