Not an April Fool’s Joke: A cautionary tale for America from Sarajevo

It cannot happen here in America, the kind of devastation that reduced Sarajevo and Bosnia, until it does happen. Photo: Sarajevo

NEW YORK, April 1, 2013 - At the center of Empires, things can fall apart suddenly.

When the end comes, it comes at the best of times yet defines the worst of times.


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There is today a lonely place in the heart of Western Civilization with much to recommend.

I speak of Sarajevo: “Jerusalem of Europe”, nestled in hills next to the Miljacka River.

Long ago, the city was a shimmering jewel in the crown of Austria-Hungary, an Empire whose motto was “Indivisible and Inseparable”. For decades, this melting pot absorbed in warm peace the eddying, conflicting currents set upon men and women by devout adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Sarajevo was a flourishing intellectual center set on a solid foundation of realistic and devout hope.

Those who savor history remember the first time in modern memory that Sarajevo fell. On June 28, 1914, heir apparent Archduke Ferdinand of Austria survived one bombing attempt only to be murdered with his wife on The Latin Bridge. Within days, tectonic plates that long had underpinned global peace shifted and the dogs of war were unleashed to ravish peoples across the world.


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The twentieth century was particularly cruel to Sarajevo. During World War II, Axis Powers who brutalized inhabitants captured the city. Then the Allies bombed Sarajevo to liberate it, but the city ultimately fell under Communist influence.

In this dread period, one particularly heroic act occurred. The Muslim chief librarian spirited to safety the Sarajevo Haggadah, a treasure created in 1350 that is so central to commemorating the Jewish Passover Seder we honor today.

Too many of us who are sure the West is civilized prefer to brush out of consciousness another chapter involving Sarajevo. This chapter opened some twenty-one years ago on April 5, 1992 when Serbs and government forces launched an unprecedented bombardment targeting civilians with armaments of every description. In the end, by February 29, 1996, some 11,000 civilians were killed and a further 56,000 grievously wounded. A city of some 525,000 souls in 1991 was reduced to just 321,000 today.

Back during the spring of 1992, a young girl did the only thing she could think to help as bombs rained down on the apartment complex near Sarajevo’s Opera House where she and her parents lived. Braving the crack of sniper fire, and steeling herself to the horror around her, she opened the windows of her apartment and took to her piano playing as long as she could stay awake. For hours that first night, for days and months afterward during the brutal siege of Sarajevo, this young girl poured her heart out through her piano.

She and her music were not the only fuels nourishing souls in an ancient City that Europe and much of the world seemingly forgot. There were other musicians in Sarajevo, other players and quiet forces who did their best to shield Muslim Bosnians from genocide.

In the end, the Siege of Sarajevo lifted, but warm, rosy peace never returned. Seventeen years following cessation of latest hostilities in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia, a new generation tries to rise while adults of all ages still struggle to grasp how so much was lost so quickly by so many. There have been solemn remembrances of the sorrows, led by international glitterati

Yet today, The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, rebuilt with Eurozone contributions after 1996, stands shuttered. With luck, the treasured Haggadah it houses is safe inside though today, of all days, it rightly should not only be on view but in solemn use.

In less than one century, light that shone upon residents in Sarajevo has dimmed. Hope is but an empty word for those who cannot leave and sullenly remain. That brave young music-loving girl made the correct choice, leaving Sarajevo, as so many promising others likely will do, compounding internal problems with a talent drain.

The kind of terror Sarajevo endured has not yet happened in America: “The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict of the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, or in a hospital from deliberate attack.”

American soils are different and American history, notwithstanding its own rivulets of blood, does seem more sanguine.

Should what happened in Sarajevo concern us now here in America as we watch geo-political plates shift again in so many places across the world, seemingly all at once?

America is the last remaining guardian of a cold global peace. We would like to think we can retreat from foreign entanglements and tend to mounting challenges within our own borders.

Some of America’s greatest cities are now under siege, not by foreign fighters but by reckless government spending and by soaring costs arising from debasement of the American dollar. Because we can borrow as much money as we want, Americans have ceaselessly saddled our children and grandchildren with a debt burden that will eventually do as much damage to our common dreams as bombs and other armaments have done to structures and to peoples in Bosnia.

We hear from the wisest solons in Government that soaring social welfare spending channeled primarily to declining urban centers in America is not truly a problem. Yet, in Chicago the population declined 25.6 % from 3,620,962 persons in 1950 to 2,695,598 in 2010. The population decline in Detroit was even steeper at 61.4 % from 1,849,568 in 1950 to 714,000 in 2010. Over six decades In Baltimore, we lost 34.6 % of the resident population, from 949,708 down to 621,000. Cleveland fell 56.4 % from 914,808 to 397,000 during the same period. St. Louis fell 63.8 % from 856,796 to 319,000. Washington, DC fell 25.0 % from 802,178 to 602,000. And Boston fell 22.9 % from 801,444 to 618,000.

Why then do these shrinking cities, and others, consume so much debt-financed government spending? And what happens, as David Stockman rightly notes, when The Federal Reserve System can no longer support America’s reckless borrowing binge? Who has led America close to the precipice?

Perhaps Sinclair Lewis saw the springtime of 2013, back in 1935: “He was an actor of genius. There was no more entertaining actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He could whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth, but he could also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks, would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts that were inescapable, even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”

Without financial security, no city and no nation is immune from ruin. And even then, dangers mount into the night.

It cannot happen here in America, the kind of devastation that reduced Sarajevo and Bosnia, until it does happen.


READ MORE by Charles Ortel



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Charles Ortel

Charles Ortel became a lapsed member of the silent majority in August 2007 when he began alerting the public to dangers posed by structural changes in the global economy. Since then, Charles has appeared in the print, radio and television media with increasing frequency. Brass Tacks will attempt to offer non-partisan perspective on factors contributing to the unresolved, burgeoning crisis and discuss potential solutions. Graduated from Horace Mann School, Yale College and Harvard Business School, Charles tries to learn each day.  

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