One doesn't have to be an admirer of mass rape to experience a sick, sinking feeling at the prospect of U.S. intervention in Bosnia.
Well, perhaps one does feel a sneaky bit of respect for the Serbian militiamen, who have managed to take the somewhat forbidding institution of genocide and deindustrialize it, bringing it down to human scale and potentially within reach of every neighborhood council and block committee.
For what man has not, at some point, gazed upon his neighbor's house or car or wife, and thought: Jeez, a couple rounds of automatic fire and all that could be mine, with the power saw thrown in!
The drumbeats have been sounding for weeks. In the New York Times, Leslie Gelb warned Bill Clinton that "without successes, he will lack the power to lead;" as examples of "success," he offered Ronald Reagan's dazzling conquest of Grenada and George Bush's "crusade" in Iraq.
And it's true; here we are 5,000 days into the Clinton Administration -- or is it only 100? -- and no one has died in the heat of battle, at least not outside Waco, Texas. The beast stirs. Normally mild-mannered columnists strip to the waist, pound their gray-haired chests and raise the cry for blood.
The word "primitive" seems to apply. One's mind drifts inevitably to the Sepik River tribes of New Guinea, the Jivaro of South America and the many other cultures that used to make successful headhunting a prerequisite for the privileges of manhood. Among certain Gallic tribes in the pre-Roman days, a boy did not become a man until he had killed in battle. Closer to our own time and place, there was the veritable bar mitzvah that accompanied George Bush's invasion of Panama, when the New York Times hailed him for succeeding in an "initiation rite" by showing his "willingness to shed blood."
Then there is the obvious problem of the public attention span. For weeks now, we have heard of nothing but "deficit reduction" and "stimulus packages" and "managed competition." We struggle to pay attention, but the only ill likely to be cured by, say, Mr. Clinton's health reform proposals is long-term, drug-resistant insomnia.
So why do I still hang back, tormented by doubts, from the inevitable Bosnia intervention? The reason of course is Waco. Americans are not known for their restraint in matters involving armed confrontation. There is a tendency, in fact, to flip into a state of uncontrollable, wolfish rage -- lyssa was the ancient Greek word for it -- whenever the slightest opportunity arises for the exercise of lethal force. A uniformed American with firepower is much like a 3-year-old with a garden hose: someone in whose presence no one can expect to remain dry and composed for long.
For days now, television has been juxtaposing blackened bodies exhumed from Waco with those uncovered in Bosnian basements, without anybody making the obvious and ominous connection. Janet Reno came forth, exhibiting the emotions appropriate to someone who just held a cigarette lighter to a kerosene-soaked child -- dismay, that is, and a touchingly poignant regret. The children had to be saved, she explained, they were in danger of being abused.
And no doubt a staff of psychiatric experts had determined that the conditions of the siege, including constant high-volume bombardment with Nancy Sinatra songs, was no longer optimal for the serene exercise of parenting skills. So the children were indeed saved, though in the military, not the biblical sense.
How long, then, before we are forced to watch Madeleine Albright, or some other grandmotherly addition to the Clinton team, explaining that those babies in Belgrade should not have been playing in a tank factory and had been molested by their daddies anyway?
Rodney King is another example of the American tendency to use a SWAT team where, in any normal human community, a single unarmed constable might do. All right, King was driving too fast and could easily have hurt himself. Plus there is the law of police science that holds that any black man who exceeds the recommended shuffling pace is a perpetrator pure and simple, unless he is doing so in the service of sport. Even so, one jury out of two found two out of four of King's torturers guilty. And all of us, from time to time, are saddened to learn of some elderly couple's home ransacked, furniture splintered and flower beds torn up in the course of a routine drug bust that happened to have the wrong address.
Armed overkill has become the rule. Think of Panama, where hundreds -- thousands? -- were killed in the process of a single arrest. Or Iraq, where thousands were incinerated to "send a message" to Saddam Hussein. If the May 2 peace plan breaks down, what will it take to convey to the Serbs the emerging Euro-American consensus that genocide is, generally speaking, frowned upon?
Air strikes are all that have been suggested, but recent experience shows that even the smartest bombs have trouble telling the difference between a day-care center and a nuclear-weapons facility. And no one has yet invented the Rhodes-scholar bomb that will pass over all the sweet-faced Serbian anti-war activists and get only the nasty Chetnik rapists.
Hence my concern that any intervention be as multilateral as possible, even if millions of troops are required. There will have to be at least one Dane or Swiss for every U.S. soldier, just to keep an eye out for the signs of incipient overkill: little flecks of foam about the mouth, for instance, or a reddish glow to the eyes.
Not that Americans are a mean and bloodthirsty race. It's just that we share a deep belief -- from Janet Reno to, apparently, David Koresh, from Vietnam to Panama -- that burnt offerings are just as appealing to the Christian god as they were to Zeus before him.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "The Worst Years of Our Lives." This article is reprinted from The Nation.