Auschwitz Redux? In Word Only

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Hitler's legacy: systematic slaughter

While the mass exodus of refugees out of Kosovo is a humanitarian catastrophe, it is not the same as mass slaughter. Yet Western leaders have bandied about the very words usually used to describe only the most unfathomable events.

"The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group," is Webster's definition of genocide. It's the stuff of Auschwitz, Pol Pot's killing fields and Rwanda's chaotic bloodbath. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright knows about it: As a child she managed to stay a step ahead of Hitler's murderous march through Europe. Yet her spokesman, James Rubin, called the Serbian assault a "genocide" in a March 31 press conference. President Clinton's spokesman, Joe Lockhart used the "G" word the same day, ostensibly to justify NATO bombing. German defense minister and NATO partner Rudolph Scharping, mindful of his own country's genocidal past, said of the Kosovo conflict, "It's a systematic extermination."

Probably the strangest use of the Hitler analogy has come from the anti-NATO Chinese, who slapped it on Clinton. In fact, such comparisons have dropped off in recent days, but for the wrong reasons, says TIME correspondent William Dowell. "Clinton was accused of using historical analogies carelessly in the beginning of the conflict, but now officials have been holding back so they aren't locked into taking action," such as committing ground troops.

Certainly, Milosevic is a two-bit nationalist thug for whom the euphemism "ethnic cleansing" provides scant cover. The massacres of Bosnian Muslims in Srebenica during the Bosnian war rightly earned him the moniker "Balkan Butcher." But despite reports of isolated massacres of Kosovars, there is no evidence that a systematic and deliberate extermination campaign is under way in Kosovo. No gassings, no ovens, no death camps. In short, no genocide. That's no excuse for Western inaction; the forced expulsion of civilians ("ethnic cleansing") demands a response, as do the reported Serb executions of Kosovar men of fighting age, along with the torching and shelling of villages.

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