When the Soviet Empire fell apart, between 1989 and 1991, some liberated nations had a difficult road to freedom. This was especially true for Yugoslavia, a land riven by historical grievances and ethnic and religious conflicts. In reality, Yugoslavia was an artificial construct consisting of (at least) six different territories with distinct identities: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Once the Soviet boot was lifted from the Yugoslav neck, the first order of business for these fledgling states was to wage war on their neighbors. This led, in short order, to the breakup of Yugoslavia into the successor countries that exist today.
The last and most vicious of these wars involved Serbia and Bosnia. The so-called Bosnian War lasted from 1992 through 1995 and rivalled either of the World Wars in its depravity. In an effort to create a “Greater Serbia,” the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic organized “ethnic cleansing” and genocide within Bosnia, allegedly coupled with systematic, wholesale rape of Bosnian women as a means of sowing terror.
Milosevic had his reasons for aggression against Bosnia. In fact, Serbia’s grievances against Bosnia went back more than 600 years, to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo (historically a region within Bosnia, and now an independent country itself). The Serbs were defeated in this battle by the Turks, and as a result Serbia became absorbed in the Ottoman Empire. This defeat has since loomed large in the Serbian mind, mostly because it meant Orthodox Christian Serbs were now ruled by Muslim Turks, although resentment also simmered against Catholic Croatians and Slovenes to the west since the Serbs’ brave stand saved them from bloodshed.
To underscore the importance of the Battle of Kosovo during the Bosnian war 600 years later, Milosevic personally visited the field where the battle took place and recited a historical rallying cry for Serbian nationalism known as “the Kosovo curse.”
The Bosnian war created a massive number of refugees, many of whom came to America. For reasons that are not entirely clear, a very large share of these Bosnians ended up in St. Louis, where they congregated in the traditionally German Bevo Mill neighborhood on the city’s south side. The Bosnian immigrants to St. Louis turned out to be model citizens: hard-working, law-abiding, and tolerant and respectful of their neighbors. They quickly revived the declining Bevo neighborhood, and over the next 20 years they moved throughout the region. The St. Louis metropolitan area is now reportedly home to 70,000 people of Bosnian descent, the largest Bosnian community outside of Europe.
St. Louis has been in the news lately because of the shooting death of Michael Brown in the suburb of Ferguson. As everyone knows, it was announced last week that St. Louis County would not bring criminal charges against the officer who shot Michael Brown. Riots immediately erupted in Ferguson and have since spread to other parts of the St. Louis area, as well as other American cities.
Although a definitive link has not yet been established, it appears that the violent reaction to the Michael Brown incident recently spilled over into St. Louis’s Bosnian community. On November 30, four youths stopped a 32 year old Bosnian-American named Zemir Begic, who was driving his car in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, and beat him to death with hammers. Two of the assailants have been caught, but a 16 -year-old black male and a 15-year-old Latino remain at large.
This event has created tension in the closely knit community, although residents have so far remained peaceful and reportedly vowed not to damage the neighborhood they built.
The Begic murder is disgusting and tragic, of course, but assuming it resulted from the free-floating rage that’s been in the air since the Ferguson riots, it’s also sickly ironic in several respects. For one thing, there is simply no doubt that Bosnians have suffered far more than African-Americans in recent years. Indeed, without downplaying the horrific and dehumanizing experience of slavery and its aftermath, even the worst abuses of African-Americans in the last 400 years probably don’t compare to what Bosnians withstood between 1992 and 1995.
These abuses, moreover, are not ancient history that one learns about from schoolbooks. Practically every Bosnian in St. Louis either personally witnessed atrocities that Americans black and white can barely fathom, or they have close relatives who did. If any community has a right to feel victimized, it is this one, yet there is no evidence that Bosnians have let historical injustice define their identities or constrict the opportunities available to them in their new home.
This attitude represents the best of the American spirit, and it is profoundly alien to the region the Bosnians fled. The Balkans have been ripped apart by ethnic and religious groups who cling bitterly to ancient feuds and refuse to let old wounds heal. The Serbs’ desire for ethnic cleansing in the 1990s had its emotional roots in a centuries-old tragic myth concocted from images of defeat, betrayal, and lost glory. It is almost impossible to find happiness and fulfillment in life when such myths keep one’s blood perpetually boiling.
Most tragic of all, Michael Brown’s fate has already assumed mythical status for too many people. The “gentle giant” meekly facing a vicious, racist cop with his hands up and pleading “don’t shoot,” only to be gunned down in cold blood—for the racial arsonists and those determined to balkanize the United States, that is too good of an image to lose, facts be damned.
The Michael Brown myth has already had horrendous consequences. When I was growing up in St. Louis County in the 1970s, Ferguson was a middle-class suburb. Before August 2014, it was still a solidly middle-class majority-black community. Those days are almost certainly over. Ferguson will not fully recover from the devastation it has experienced since the race-baiters took over. A generation from now, it will in all likelihood be a ghetto and possibly still bear the scars of last week’s riots.
And although the crime is still being investigated, Zemir Begic also appears to be a victim of the senseless, wanton rage the race-baiters have used Ferguson to spawn.
This is not to deny that black Americans still face difficulties and indignities that most white Americans do not. However, the Michael Brown investigation was closely coordinated with an African-American Attorney General who reports to an African-American President. It is also certain at this point that Michael Brown was not a gentle giant who put his hands up in submissive surrender. He was the violent aggressor who turned a routine police stop into a life-and-death confrontation, although whether that confrontation should have ended in Brown’s death remains worthy of debate.
Myths can be healthy, or they can be destructive. A healthy, life-affirming myth must be grounded in life as it is actually lived and draw positive but realistic lessons from that experience. Michael Brown became a myth before he became a man, and there is still time to prevent his tragic end from becoming a tragic myth. But with music stars, athletes, and other high-profile figures showing solidarity with the “hands-up, don’t shoot” mythology that confounds the facts while inflaming historical grievances, the odds of this happening appear increasingly remote.