Broken Windows

We are all familiar with the "broken windows" theory as it relates to domestic affairs.

We are all familiar with the "broken windows" theory as it relates to domestic affairs.  In an article in the March 1982 Atlantic Monthly, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued that ignoring vandalism, petty crime and similar actions had the effect of signaling "that 'no one cares' and that 'untended'" behavior also leads to the breakdown of community controls."

In other words, when little transgressions are overlooked, the stage is set for major ones to happen. If police ignore the early signs of public disorder, symbolized by broken windows, criminals will get the message that anything goes.

We are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. There, plenty of "broken windows" manifested themselves prior to the mass killings--easy to read signs including the proliferation of militias and hate radio.  No one should have been surprised.  From January 1998, intelligence analysts had been tracking the deployment of militias in East Timor; violence first erupted in the province in April 1999, months prior to the massive campaign that resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees after the referendum on independence.

Two months ago, the Rt. Rev. Artemije, the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Kosovo, arrived in Washington warning that violence against the Serbs of Kosovo was looming.  He cited all of the "minor" acts--murders, kidnappings, arson against churches, monasteries and homes--that had been left unsolved since NATO forces entered the province in June 1999, and said that the lack of any real law enforcement was emboldening radicals to take action.

And now we come to Iraq.  For months, there have been reports that Shiite militias were organizing and testing the Coalition's authority. Many of these first tests were taken against Iraq's Christian minority--forcing women to veil or attacking shops that sold alcohol. The lack of any effective response led these groups to conclude that they could escalate their actions.

In Kosovo and in Iraq, locals concluded that outside forces--NATO in Kosovo and the Coalition in Iraq--placed a higher premium on avoiding casualties than on engagement. I do not believe that the violence, last month in Kosovo and currently ongoing in Iraq--is primarily directed against Americans qua Americans.

No, it is designed to affect the situation on the ground in advance of final settlements. The demands for independence on the part of Kosovo's Albanians are enhanced if no Serbs remain in the province and if their historical, cultural and religious monuments have been destroyed. In Iraq, the violence is designed to enhance the nationalist prestige of the insurgents and to send a message to pro-U.S. politicians that after June 30, their position will become increasingly tenuous. Why should any Iraqi want to continue to work with the Coalition, since with the forthcoming handover of power, the Americans will withdraw?

If, as some reports suggest, a tactical alliance may be forged between Sunni insurgents and the Shiite militias, it is clear that their target is the Governing Council and that they hope to gain influence in a post-occupation Iraq by forcing the politicians to come to terms with them.

This week's column, essentially, is about "spilt milk." The signs were there in Kosovo and Iraq, just as they had been in Rwanda and East Timor. But the desire for good news overrode discerning the ominous signs of the times.

But what it does warn us about is the need to evaluate the situation on the ground realistically, not from any ideological perspective.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.