“OK, now here’s something you don’t see every day,” I said to myself getting off the city bus, unable and unwilling to curb my curiosity at the sight of thousands of people gathered in front of the United Nation’s complex in Geneva, Switzerland, waving Serbian flags, carrying placards covered with Cyrillic writing, chanting and singing. One guy was walking around with a photo of Vladimir Putin peeking out of his half-zipped jacket. “What a hoot,” I thought.
I was in Geneva for a brief solo spiritual retreat, a few days of prayer and reflection a long way from home. The design of this pilgrimage included reading a selection of Calvin’s sermons at the foot of the pulpit from which they were preached (a theologically onerous task, but from time to time one must face the grumpy grandfather of one’s faith tradition) and saying a few prayers at a pagan shrine that has been discovered and excavated directly beneath said pulpit (a Christian should honor the Divine Mystery shared by all religious people). While in Geneva, I worshiped with the Church of Scotland’s congregation, a faith community that was started by John Knox and is considered to be the very first Presbyterian church. At the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, I found myself praying alongside Samuel Kobia, the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches.
Stopping to watch a boisterous mob of Balkans beat the drums of war wasn’t on the agenda, but I got off the bus anyway, and even though the next morning’s papers would declare the event peaceful, in that moment I got kind of spooked.
Finding justice in history can be difficult, but there seemed to be no question in the mind of the mob: Kosovo’s bid for independence was an insult to the Serbian nation. When the United States and other western countries recognized the nascent nation state, it wounded the Serbian soul. It was time for action, time to love, honor, and defend the mother land—time, if necessary, for war.
Now, I’ll freely admit that I may be a little bit prejudiced, but there’s something about being in the presence of large, young, Slavic men, all dressed up like skinheads and packing violently anti-American signage that was a little bit unnerving and had me quietly rehearsing my best Canadian accent. Something in the way the crowd kept throwing up a three fingered salute creeped me out. It looked too much like something out of a 1930’s era Leni Riefenstahl film. Then there was the long line of vans filled with riot police, all ready to descend upon the chanting crowd, and, parked in front of the heavily guarded US consulate, there was the armored car topped with a water cannon. I returned to my Calivist/Pagan contemplation in pretty quick order. It seemed safer.
As I walked away from the protest I saw someone who may have been an organic chamomile farmer though he looked an awful lot like your average soccer thug. He was holding a sign condemning Condoleezza Rice (no, really, follow that link when you’re done with this column—it’s hilarious) as a terrorist. It struck me that I’d seen this all before.
This is the rhetorical justification for war in the Bush Era: you wrap yourself in the language of patriotism, you claim to be the victim of terrible injustice, and you call your enemy a terrorist. It doesn’t matter that your flag waving lacks thoughtfulness, and it doesn’t matter that the injuries your nation has sustained are not mortal wounds. It doesn’t even matter that your enemy isn’t a terrorist.
Condi Rice isn’t a terrorist (“she cannot be a terrorist,” my mother pointed out with her tongue firmly in her cheek, “she wears Jimmy Choos.”). Then again, Saddam Hussein wasn’t a terrorist either, and that didn’t keep the American people from singing God Bless America in the seventh inning stretch while bombs fell like the wrath of God upon innocent Iraqi children—all for reasons that have failed to survive even five years of historical scrutiny.
C’est la guerre, I suppose. The Serbs and the Albanians have been bickering over Kosovo since long before Willy Nelson started smoking dope, and, being such old hands at mortal conflict, they don’t need Bushite rhetoric to justify senseless violence.
I just wish they’d learned from our mistakes in Iraq and not from our warmongering wordsmiths and spindoctors.
So. Here are photos I took before I got scared:
Then, I got scared:
I don’t have much of a future in photojournalism!