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14 Nov 16

Letter To An American Friend

Dejan Anastasijevic, a concerned Serbian citizen

As we all wait in dread for Donald Trump to make his first moves as President, let me tell you that I know how you feel.

Donald Trump. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci.

Dear Friend,

I mean it literally: it’s exactly how I felt when Slobodan Milosevic assumed control of the Serbian Communist Party in 1987, and then wiped out the democratic opposition at the first multi-party elections three years later.

Like you, I watched with horror as my seemingly decent compatriots, suddenly freed from shackles of political correctness and spurred by Milosevic’s media, started screaming awful things about their friends and neighbors of different ethnicity.

Like you, I hoped and prayed that this was just venting steam and posturing, and that push won’t come to shove. Like you now, I still hope that Trump will not actually do all these terrible things – locking up political opponents, mass deportations, legalizing torture, the Wall – that he promised to do in the campaign.

But I’ve got to tell you buddy, it’s a frail hope. Mine was crushed one summer evening in Belgrade, as I watched Yugoslav Army tanks rolling out towards Vukovar, a baroque Croatian town soon to be turned into rubble. And then again in the spring of 1992, when the siege of Sarajevo began.

Dreadful, unimaginable things suddenly became very real. That’s the thing about reality – it stays there however hard you try to wish it away.

Let me first emphasize that I’m fully aware that Trump is not Milosevic, and that there are vast differences in style, size, and substance between those two. But there are also similarities: they both got their power by playing on the most basic side of human nature; they both brought out the worst within their own nations, and pitted communities, even whole ethnic groups, against one another just to attain power.

During his reign, Milosevic created vast damage both in Serbia and its neighborhood, but he was just a local Balkan strongman, after all. If allowed, Trump would be able to do so much more, to America and to the world. Anyway, I’m offering my sympathy, and a few pieces of advice.

My first advice is to get real and brace yourself for troubled times ahead. In a couple of months, you may see some of your neighbors and co-workers rounded up and taken away by armed thugs (just today, Trump said he intends to deport some “two, maybe three million” immigrants).

There may be race riots and crackdowns on Muslim communities. And people like you, who are neither illegal nor Muslim, but who abhor such actions, may find themselves under tremendous pressure to conform, or be branded as traitors, or at least as a flawed and unpatriotic, just as I, alongside many others, was described as a traitor to the Serbian cause.

This is my second advice: don’t argue, do. You can’t fight bigots with words, or prove to them that you’re just as American as they are, and even if you manage to outsmart them, they will respond with violence. 

That’s what bullies do, especially now when they feel empowered, even authorized by the government (remember the “I’d like to kick him in the face” line from one of Trump’s rallies?). Instead, do whatever you can to try to help the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the frightened.

Sometimes even a small gesture, a kind word or a reassuring smile will suffice; sometimes you will need to do more. Remember Mary Sarton’s words that in bad times “one must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being”.

They’ll tell you that it’s already over, that the people have voted and you lost. Don’t fall for that: bear in mind that more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton then for Trump, and that only about a quarter of eligible voters cast their ballot for the buffoon. Far from being alone, you’re actually the majority – I know, because I’ve met many Americans, and almost all of them were kind, decent human beings, just like you. And many will refuse to be swept aside by thugs.

In my country, we fought against Milosevic long and hard (by the way, the 1999 NATO bombing over Kosovo didn’t help).  Some, like me, worked on exposing his crimes and abuses for the entire world to see; others braved police batons and water cannons at mass protests which sometimes lasted for weeks. We got organized, and in the end, Milosevic was voted out of power.

When he refused to consent (as Trump indicated that he might do if he loses), we kicked him out of office and eventually shipped him off to the war crimes court in The Hague. It took a while, but it worked out in the end.

For the good guys, America is a much more favorable battleground than Serbia was in the 1990s. Barely emerging from one-party rule, our institutions were weak, easily subverted by Milosevic and his cronies. You have the Bill of Rights, a robust justice system, and you still have plenty of free media, protected by the First Amendment, a thing that even Trump can’t easily overturn.

Parts of the military and security services have already declared that they will not partake in war crimes such as torture or killing families of suspected terrorists, even if the order comes straight from commander-in-chief.

Let’s all hope that once he moves to the White House, Trump will face such fierce resistance that he’ll back away before he starts executing his evil plans. But as I said, hope is frail, and when it’s all you have, it’s a thin rod to lean on.

Going back to Serbia, there’s one more thing: during the years of struggle, we had one thing to look up to: good old Uncle Sam. And he did help, by supporting anti-Milosevic’s resistance politically and financially.

It was a different America then, before September 11 and Afghanistan and Iraq, before Guantanamo and extraordinary rendering and waterboarding. Not exactly a shining City on the Hill, but broadly speaking, a benevolent empire, which respected the human rights of its citizens, and sometimes those of other countries as well.

That America is now almost gone. Osama Bin Laden and George Bush took care of that, and Barrack Obama’s effort to rebuild was only partially successful.  Now Trump wants to turn it in a much nastier place. He needs to be stopped, and it’s up to you to carry the task. But unlike us, you can’t ask America to help. You’ll have to reinvent it.

Yours truly

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