In Venice, we drink cheap wine and walk until our feet ache. The narrow streets are crowded with tourists, but we’re in a world of our own, celebrating ten years of marriage in a city that has endured for fifteen hundred years.
Once Europe’s main trading port with the Middle East, Venice is now entirely dependent on the millions of visitors who flock here annually. Though its power and glory have long vanished and many of its grand palaces sit vacant, the city is still lovely: shuttered, crumbling buildings awash in light; canals and twisting alleys leading to hidden plazas, full of secrets.
In our hotel room overlooking the Grand Canal, reading the headlines in the International Herald Tribune, I can’t help but wonder whether Washington will be as well-preserved a thousand years from now; whether it, too, will become part-museum, part-amusement park, living off the entrance fees of tourists.
The headlines aren’t encouraging. Clinton talks about growth, but the religion of endless growth, as Ed Abbey insisted, is a kind of lunacy that celebrates consumption and production as a way of life, that exploits the earth as well as human labor. To an unemployed steelworker or a single mother earning five dollars an hour, growth may seem to promise a better future. But the bankers and oil companies and real estate speculators who shape economic policy are concerned about their own future. Growth is their euphemism for greed.
Meanwhile, less than a day’s drive from here, the fighting continues in Bosnia, where tens of thousands have been killed or displaced, where starvation and concentration camps and rape hotels have become weapons in a campaign of ethnic extermination. Yet Washington is by and large indifferent, as Bosnia sits on no oil fields and sends neither Democrats nor Republicans to Congress. The leaders of western Europe seem just as willing to leave Bosnia to its fate, even though the atrocities are happening in their own back yard. They wait for the Serbs to listen to reason; wait for Clinton to act decisively; wait, while old men are beaten and young girls raped in the name of ethnic cleansing.
I put down the newspaper, listen to the laughter and shouting from the streets below. I, too, want to ignore the war. I despair of understanding the tangled history of the Balkans, the ancient strands of nationalism and racial animosity and religious strife. Yet haven’t I spent countless hours in therapy trying to unravel my own tangled history? I shrug as if the enmity between Serb and Croat, or Catholic and Muslim, is impossible to comprehend — then argue with my wife for half an hour about the fleeting look at a stranger that lasted a second too long.
The cold war is over, yet as nations, and individuals, we seem always to be at war with someone. Like a hooker with AIDS who just won’t quit, the United States continues to peddle weapons to despots everywhere and spends nearly three hundred billion dollars a year on defense — more than we squandered at the height of the cold war. We’re powerfully armed against our feelings, too: in the dark precincts of the heart, we shove aside fugitive emotions, beat ourselves senseless. Saying it’s wrong is just another way of being in conflict.
I gaze at the houses and shops along the winding canal — “the finest street in the world,” wrote a fifteenth-century traveler. I study the busy traffic: the gondolas and water buses and garbage scows. Suddenly, a speedboat cuts in front of a water taxi, churning up waves. The taxi driver curses, his fist raised.
Morning light fans across our room, but Norma is still asleep. I pour a cup of coffee, stare out the window, recall the conversation we had a few days earlier with a friend in Amsterdam.
J. has worked with the poor in Asia and Latin America and in the ghettos of America. He’s looked squarely at the most unimaginable suffering. A shadow crosses his face when I bring up Bosnia. He doesn’t want to make glib comparisons with the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews, he says, but the parallels are hard to ignore.
People are being slaughtered, and we’re doing practically nothing to stop it. The West defended Kuwait, a desert sheikdom where women still don’t have the right to vote. U.S. troops killed more than 100,000 Arabs to protect Kuwait’s oil and George Bush’s standing in the polls. Why then, he asks, are we so timid about intervening in Bosnia, which was a democracy? Why has the world let an authoritarian dictator like Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic try to seize every square foot of land where even a minority of Serbs live? Sure, there have been injustices on all sides. But in any weighing of atrocities, the Serbs bear the heaviest responsibility.
J. says he doesn’t understand the moral myopia of leftists who objected to U.S. “genocide” against the Vietnamese but are silent now. Silent about terrorized refugees hounded from city to forest. Silent about men and women herded into cellars and set on fire. Silent about the teenage girl who was forced to witness the killing of her father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, then raped repeatedly by soldiers.
These are terrible stories, I agree. But neighbors have always killed neighbors in Yugoslavia. When they have nothing else to fight over, they fight over God and whether He listens more carefully to prayers mumbled in mosques or in churches, from dogeared Bibles or tattered Korans. Ironically, religious strife there has been more common among Christians — the Croats are Roman Catholic, the Serbs Eastern Orthodox — than between Christians and Muslims.
That there are so many Muslims in Bosnia, however, is itself a legacy of war. During the Turkish invasions in the fourteenth century, many Slavs were forced to convert to Islam. Though these Muslims, who comprise half of Bosnia’s population, have maintained their identity as Europeans, the Serbs now see them as a threat.
But nearly everyone in Yugoslavia has a tale of betrayal. During World War II, pro-Nazi Croats carried out genocide against Serbs, and Serbs launched violent attacks on Croats. After the war, Yugoslavs killed one out of ten of their countrymen in a bloody civil war. Marshal Tito emerged from these struggles strong enough to hold the country together as a Communist state. But after his death, the individual republics became increasingly resentful of the Serb-dominated central government. Croatia and Slovenia seceded and held their own national elections. Then Bosnia did the same. The Serbs responded with brutal force.
How, I ask, are U.S. troops going to bring peace to a region so prone to violent conflict, a country the size of Oregon where people observe three major religions and speak five different languages and use two different alphabets?
Military intervention is no substitute for a political settlement, my friend acknowledges. But if you saw a stranger being attacked by thugs, what would you do? Try to figure out a long-term solution to the problem of crime — or rush across the street to help?
I don’t know, I admit. I’m not sure if I’d be brave enough to risk my life. J. smiles ruefully. He says he was traveling recently in eastern Europe when he saw a band of gypsies sneak up behind an elderly woman. The children distracted her while one of the adults rifled through her purse. J. says he kept walking, his heart pounding. He didn’t call out a warning. He didn’t rush across the street to help.
Back at his hotel, he felt a pang of remorse. But it was dark, he reasoned. He couldn’t be certain of what was happening. Besides, he didn’t speak the language. This was a foreign culture, with different customs. Maybe they weren’t really robbing her.
A water ambulance speeds down the Grand Canal with its siren wailing. Church bells chime. How can Norma sleep through this? How can anyone sleep in such a noisy world, so bent on destroying itself? Smoke rises from the rubble of destroyed villages, and we sleep. Children weep, and we sleep.
After talking with J. in Amsterdam, we visited the Anne Frank house. We walked through the secret rooms where Anne and her family lived silently for two years until they were betrayed by Dutch informers. We learned that Anne finally died in a concentration camp in Germany in March 1945, the month of my birth. It was sobering to be reminded that Hitler, whose ethnic cleansing succeeded in killing one out of every three Jews in the world, was trying to make it impossible for someone like me to be here today.
That night, on the train from Holland to Germany, I realized we were following the same route as Anne on her way to Bergen-Belsen. As the sky grew darker I lay wide-eyed in my narrow bunk, staring at the ceiling, my imagination racing faster than the steel wheels crashing against the rails. I pictured sealed boxcars filled with desperate, tangled bodies swaying along these same tracks. I wondered: if one of the worst things we can say about the Holocaust is that so many knew and did nothing, what shall we say when we look back at the destruction of Bosnia, at the photographs of starving men and women, at the mute reproach of a Muslim child’s eyes? Shall we boast that the American economy leapt forward? That interest rates tumbled while thousands of Muslim women were impregnated by Serbian soldiers, then held in detention camps until abortion was no longer an option? That newspapers too timid to print the word fuck didn’t hesitate to refer to ethnic cleansing, as if the Serbs were airing out the sheets and scrubbing the floors?
If we won’t protect the Muslims of Bosnia, I thought, why not make sure that our humanitarian aid actually reaches them? Better yet, why not give them arms to defend themselves? Perhaps it would be political suicide for Clinton to send troops to fight white Christians in defense of Muslims, even European Muslims. But surely, with guns as plentiful as tuna sandwiches in American high schools, there must be a few extra crates of weapons somewhere, some spare tanks and artillery that could be dispatched to haggard Muslims defending their homes.
Still, doesn’t violence always beget violence? Where will it end? The history of nations is a history of heartaches, of a world drenched in blood, of old men declaring wars and sending young men to fight them. Since World War II, when has U.S. military intervention ever kept a bad situation from becoming worse?
A better solution, surely, would be a genuine United Nations peacekeeping force, a real army fully supported by the international community — and a binding agreement by all nations that no warlike acts be undertaken unilaterally, and that in any large outbreak of violence authority would automatically cede to the U.N.
But there is no international community. The rich nations speak with one voice when it suits them, but they’re no more likely to defer to the U.N. than any Mafia don in Sicily or gang leader in central L.A. Diplomats shuttle from conference to conference, lob words like mortar shells; later that night, they wave to each other across crowded restaurants, the best restaurants.
The train leaned into a sharp curve and shuddered, like the twitching muscles of a huge beast. In the cramped compartment below us two elderly Germans turned restlessly in their sleep. They looked as if they were in their seventies — old enough to have been teenagers during World War II. It was a sour thought that nagged at me all night as the old man snored and his wife coughed.
In the morning, the man took out a tobacco pouch and rolled two cigarettes. He passed one to his wife and offered her a light. It was a no-smoking car, but I didn’t say anything.
Like an eager child on Christmas morning, I nudge Norma awake. I want her to see Venice before the sun climbs any higher, to marvel at the light that washes everything clean.
But later, as we wander through the crooked streets toward St. Mark’s Square, I wonder whether Venice would have appealed this much to my romantic imagination had I lived here five hundred years ago, when it was the largest and richest city in Europe but was controlled by an oligarchy of wealthy families. The rest of the population had virtually no political rights.
We shuffle through the Doges’ Palace, the center of government for the dukes who ruled Venice. An enormous staircase — clearly intended to awe visitors with its opulence — leads to the richly adorned, wood-paneled courts decorated by the finest Renaissance painters. We’re dutifully overwhelmed. But beyond the ornate chambers, a short passageway called the Bridge of Sighs connects the palace proper with the grim dungeons below.
Prisoners got one last look at their city as they passed over the bridge; hence its name. Having been tried and sentenced without public knowledge, they were led to their dark, dank cells to await flogging or branding or blinding or hanging. More like sewers than prisons, the cells were often under two feet of filthy water that seeped in from the sea, and a prisoner had to eat his meager ration of soup and bread before the rats did. Here, where guards were proficient at crushing skulls or tearing out tongues, history too was being made.
On a water bus in Venice, we sit beside a woman who seems a little out of place. I wonder if she’s a refugee; the fighting in Yugoslavia has created one of the worst refugee crises Europe has ever known. But entranced by the beauty around us — the reflections of the buildings in the water, the weather-beaten pastels of red and violet and green — I don’t pay her any attention until I realize she’s quietly crying.
I look at her face, notice the effort she’s making to appear composed despite the tears running down her cheeks. Maybe it’s nothing serious: a bad day at work, an argument with her boyfriend. But suddenly I feel ashamed. I’m just another tourist in a world that’s never on vacation, where there’s always somebody beside us whose life is crumbling: somebody who isn’t white enough or Christian enough or rich enough; somebody whose father or husband has just been thrown out of work or into jail; somebody who, despite her losses, carries on.
I ask if she’s all right. She shakes her head. “I am not so good,” she says in halting English. I nod sympathetically, but separated as we are by language, by culture, a real conversation isn’t possible. Venice shimmers in the dazzling light. There are tears on her cheeks, and I don’t know why.