Karadzic Told Us What He Planned; We Just Watched

08/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Weeks before snipers sparked war at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn in 1992, I visited a psychiatrist, silver-maned and clearly loony, at his Bosnian Serb party headquarters.

He jabbed a stick at a colorful grade-school map on a wall of the tiny office to show how Serbs would displace Muslims and Croats by force if all else failed.

I rechecked his name -- Radovan Karadzic was not yet in the files -- and then asked how he would get away with that. You watch, he replied.

The interview went across the world on Associated Press wires. Back then looming conflict was still easily preventable. But few took notice of the obscure doctor.

Even after Serb gunners besieged Sarajevo, and courageous reporters found ways in from every direction, people with the power to act simply wrung their hands.

Year after year, Europe and America watched. As announced, Serb militias "cleansed" centuries-old Muslim and Croat settlements with help from Belgrade.

That name, Radovan Karadzic, climbed the scale of synonyms for human depravity. Along with Ratko Mladic and others most of us fail to remember, he transcended cruelty.

Reporters filled notebooks with details of gunned down families, mass graves, systemic gang rape, burned villages, starvation camps, and torture just for the sadism of it.

We all saw that beefy, pockmarked face smirking as atrocities forced victims to fight back so fiercely that outsiders could dismiss it all as "a civil war."

After the concentrated horror of Srebrenica pricked enough consciences, the Dayton Accords in 1995 stopped most of it. Karadzic moved up the hill to Pale where he mocked efforts to bring him to justice.

NATO politicians claimed he was too hard to find. But this was no Osama bin Laden in trackless mountains. NATO commanders, and reporters, knew where he was.

And then Karadzic was allowed to slip away, along with Mladic and others, their crimes unpunished, to inspire ethnic genocide elsewhere.

The government of Serbia took credit for locating him at long last with detective work, but I would go with a New York Times editorial:

"A more likely explanation is that President Boris Tadic, and his pro-Western government, decided to improve Serbia's chances of joining the European Union and finally ordered investigators to do their job."

Later is better than never. But think of those anguished victims who for years saw no gesture toward justice. More, consider those uncounted thousands of lives that earlier action would have spared.

Stepping back, we might take stock of where we are as a civilized world 16 years after Radovan Karadzic was allowed to exterminate people he found inconvenient.

In the 1990s, most news organizations still wanted substance and were willing to pay for it. Reporters, as watchdogs, sniffed fresh ground for impending calamity.

AP and others signaled Serb intentions. Thanks to a brave and well-funded Sarajevo press corps, no one who cared to notice was ignorant of the chilling reality.

And yet the world still did not respond.

As usual, pundits with secondhand sources outshouted correspondents who saw the story up close. The Balkans was too complex, too fraught with history, and so forth.

Facts were blurred in a flurry of opinion, offering no end of excuses for ignominious inaction.

The reality, as Blaine Harden of the Washington Post once said to me, was about as complicated as armed robbery.

In Vietnam, and again in Iraq, reporters could not stop U.S. policymakers from charging onward. And in Bosnia, they could not inspire simple preventative action.

Today it is harder to spot an incipient Karadzic. Correspondents are dramatically fewer, with scant funds to travel and more editors prone to tell them what they saw.

Though a "mainstream media" often still serves us well, it is taxed with sweeping generalities from critics who fail to separate what is good from what bad.

As a result, people listen to long-distance guesswork and Internet chatter. Google cannot reflect a Karadzic with his crude map until someone finds him in the flesh.

Heraclitus put it simply enough 2,500 years ago. As Willis Barnstone translates: "Eyes are a more precise witness than ears."

But whether good or bad, the media is no more than the messenger. Those who cared enough knew what was happening in Bosnia, and they are likely to know the next time.

Prosecutors will recite a litany of Karadzic's crimes. Yet Srebrenica, however horrific, was just the final flourish of carefully orchestrated ethnic extermination.

Hindsight confirms what was dead clear at the time. NATO shots across the bow of warships off Dubrovnik, or any other such stitches in time, would have done it.

It is heartening that Karadzic must finally face justice. Yet the rest of us might also consider our role as unindicted co-conspirators.

Why didn't we stop him? That is now rhetorical. More to the point, will we stop all those others -- now and in the future -- who murder en masse before our averted eyes?

Mort Rosenblum is editor of the new quarterly, Dispatches, and author of Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival.