“Tolerance” is a Loaded Gun

C.W. is in town for a few days from Kosovo. He’s left the NGO he joined a few years ago: “I’ve gone rogue,” he jokes. He’s consulting independently in Kosovo, doing, I gather, a lot of grant-writing. He’s thinking of returning to the U.S. and looking for work here.

Bridge over the Ibar, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

If our lunch had a theme, it was “tolerance.” In the couple of years since we last spoke, he says, things in Kosovo have improved. For years, militias and paramilitaries had controlled the bridge over the Ibar River, the only direct link between the Serbian enclave of North Metrovica and the Albanian-majority South Metrovicë. C.W.’s organization sometimes needed him to cross; his Serbian friends made clear that they didn’t approve.

Now, he says, the bridge is again seeing traffic, particularly shoppers looking for a good deal at a new discount market. While populist politicos in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska rail on about independence, Serbian Kosovars seem resigned to the status quo. Both sides increasingly tolerate the other. Kosovo’s Serbs tolerate borders recognized by Germany and the United States (and impotently opposed by Russia and Serbia). Kosovar Albanians tolerate the autonomy asserted by Serbs north of the Ibar and tolerate the isolated Serbian enclaves in the south itself.

I am not optimistic about reports of tolerance. “Toleration” is a truce, not a peace. We tolerate a child’s minor misbehavior, but we imagine that the child will grow out of it. We tolerate the summer heat, but look forward to a cooler Autumn. We tolerate our neighbors’ arguments, but wish they’d move away. We tolerate bird-droppings, howling dogs, the flu, slow service, and heavy traffic. And we imagine how good it would be if all of these irritations simply vanished.

But our irritations do not simply vanish. We therefore experience them, day after day, as an itch, an ache, or a dull pain. And these feelings are particularly acute when the things we tolerate are close by.

I asked C.W. how he gets from L.A. to Metrovica. He says it’s a direct Turkish Airlines flight to Vienna, a connection to Pristina and, from there, an hour-long cab ride. “Just an hour?” I said, incredulous. C.W. laughed and reminded me that Kosovo is very compact, about the size of Los Angeles County.

His remark reminds me of a description of the narrow strip of Levantine coastline between the Jordan and the Mediterranean: far too much history concentrated in too small a space.

Small spaces intensify the irritation feel with conditions we merely tolerate. After Versailles, Fascists stoked Italian outrage at the diplomatic decision to award Fiume (now Rijeka) and Dalmatia to Yugoslavia. Conflicts over Kashmir have contributed to four Indo-Pakistani wars since 1947. Argentina has never recognized British possession of the Falklands, and fought a disastrous war in 1982 to reincorporate them into Argentina as the Malvinas. Europe is full of such small territories, their borders so troublesome in the 19th and early 20th century: Banat, Sudetenland, Crimea, Karelia, Cyprus. The current arrangements seem stable enough. But then, until the late 1980s, so did Yugoslavia.

Tolerance is a loaded gun. True, the safety is on. True, it’s in a closet or bureau somewhere around the house. Still: if the street gets hot again, the guns will be found and readied for use.

Whenever we extend our moral arc no further than tolerance, everywhere we stop short of empathy and love, we edge closer to killing one another. May Kosovo have a different future. May we all.

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