First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
No matter how you look at it, the peace we have in America is a continuing miracle.
The only reason we don't realize it is that we live in the miracle every day.
Not that we haven't had our share of wars -- plenty of American citizens have lost their lives or their health or their peace of mind in the brutality of combat.
But here at home, today, most Americans live in peace with their neighbors -- even though we are one of the most varied and mixed nations on earth.
Nothing makes this clearer than the nightmare that's beginning again in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was never a nation in the traditional sense. Its people never had a single government before the Europeans came. They speak many languages. No one ethnic group has a majority.
The borders were decided by accident -- what was left over after Russia and England were through grabbing everything they could get. Afghanistan was the buffer zone they created between their empires.
Being a bunch of international leftovers is not a sound basis for a civil society.
When the Russians tried to enforce Communist rule there in the '80s, many different revolutionary groups sprang up. When the Russians left, each military leader felt himself entitled to remain in power.
If he couldn't have the whole nation, then he'd whatever piece of it he could hold on to. And thus the rule of the warlords began, each part of the country being ruled over by leaders who ranged in temperament from tyrants to robbers, from megalomaniacs to drug runners.
The Taliban succeeded in unifying the country the way the Russians did -- by being something everyone could loathe. Now that the Taliban is out, however, it's business as usual.
So if you want to go from city A to town B, you have to take into account who is ruling both places -- and all the points in between.
At any moment there'll be a shooting war between some warlords and complete peace between others.
At any moment, you can find yourself in the crossfire. You can't count on anything.
The warlords of Afghanistan look almost benign compared to the viciousness that has gone on in Bosnia and Rwanda. In those countries, there are two (Rwanda) or three (Bosnia) ethnic groups that loathe each other.
In Rwanda, the hatred goes back centuries. The Tutsi and the Hutu detested each other long before the British came. While the British ruled, they enforced an uneasy peace between the two tribes.
The peace was superficial, however. It was British imperial policy to prefer the minority group -- the Tutsi -- and keep them in a position of dominance over the Hutus. This made it far easier to govern a colony where Europeans were always in the minority.
The result, some thirty years after the British left, was genocide on an astonishing scale, carried out with shameful enthusiasm by a shockingly large segment of the Hutu population.
Bosnia's legacy had even older roots. When the Turks conquered the Balkan peninsula, the Slavic people who had immigrated there under Byzantine rule were suddenly divided by a completely arbitrary border determined by the fortunes of war.
Those north of the line remained Christians under the influence of the Roman Church. They wrote using the Roman alphabet, and came to be called Croats.
Those south of the line lived under Muslim rule. Many remained Christian, but they were under the influence of the Greek (and later the Russian) Church, and they wrote using a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, which was adapted from the Greek alphabet in order to record the sounds of Slavic speech.
Many in the Turkish territory, however, converted to Islam, either from sincere belief or because Muslims had many more opportunities for preferment and profit under Turkish rule.
Then, at the end of World War I, the Turks went away, and a bunch of diplomats decided that making a single nation out of these three groups was a Good Idea.
A nightmare is more like it. Between world wars, the Serbs (from former Muslim territory) lorded it over the Croats, so that the Nazis found many willing collaborators among the Croats (though they found plenty of opponents, too). When the Nazis left, those Croat collaborators had made the hatreds between tribes even deeper.
Tito's Communist government oppressed everybody equally, but when the Communist unity collapsed, demagogues found it politically useful to waken the bitter memories and inflame the old passions.
Under Tito, Serbs and Croats, Muslims and Christians had lived side by side, had intermarried, had moved into all parts of the country.
But now the Christian Serbs were determined that the Muslim Serbs would not rule over them even in places where the Muslims were in the majority. Croats were equally determined not to be ruled by Serbs, and vice-versa.
Just to complicate things, the Muslim Kosovars -- Albanians who had immigrated into Serbia during the Communist years -- were just as determined not to be ruled by Christian Serbs.
Most people wanted peace. Most people wanted things to go on as they had for the past decades under Tito, only freer.
But here's the tragedy of civil war: Once it starts, you don't have the option of remaining neutral.
When there's somebody shooting at you and your family because he's of Christian ancestry and you're of Muslim ancestry, you don't have the option of saying, "But I don't care about that, leave me alone." You either flee or fight.
The biggest shock of all was how quickly Yugoslavian society went from civilization to civil war. How quickly neighbor turned against neighbor. How quickly ethnic jokes turned into vicious slanders, and slanders turned into accusations, and accusations turned into vengeance, and vengeance turned into atrocities and mass murder and ethnic cleansing and genocide.
It wasn't two years from the beginning of independence in Bosnia till Muslim men were being rounded up and slaughtered by the hundreds, by the thousands, while the world watched and did nothing.
But Not in America
It could have happened here. In the 1950s, with African-American soldiers returning from war to find that in their own country they were still kept from decent employment, harassed and persecuted, and occasionally lynched or mobbed, while Southern legislators, governors, and Congressmen fought for every shred of Jim Crow they could hang on to, it was only a matter of time before the angriest of America's blacks took up arms and began fighting for independence.
Like the Catholic Irish in Ulster. Like the Kosovars. Like the Kurds. Like angry, mistreated, oppressed, hopeless people in countries all over the world.
But we didn't have that civil war.
Instead, we had the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who embraced the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and fought his people's war in the media, appealing to the conscience of America instead of fighting it out with bullets.
Because he prevented that war, it's easy to forget that tens of thousands of Americans are alive today because of him. It's easy to ignore how black and white cultures in America have interpenetrated, how relatively safe and peaceful our lives are because of his life's work.
There are still neighborhoods where bullets fly, still barriers caused by racism on both sides of the color line, still demagogues trying to fan the flames of hate and blame. But the line itself is just a line, not a fence, not a wall, and even the line is growing blurry in the minds and hearts of our children.
That's why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. His gifts were given to us all.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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