Crying Shame

Thursday, September 16th, 2004

When it’s a Russian head of state declaring “war on terror,” the self-serving partial truths behind it go down a little less smoothly, at least in the American media, and the reek of cynicism is a little too oppressive to ignore.

The wails of grief for the hundreds of dead had hardly subsided in Beslan, and a sense of horror still reverberated in the global village, when Vladimir Putin outlined sweeping plans to circumvent democracy and keep himself in power. These included the elimination of direct election of parliament members by the Russian people.

Once again, in the wake of unspeakable tragedy, we must look on as a self-serving politician plays dumb about the sequence of events underlying it and reduces public outrage to a simple, time-tested equation: us against them. “The enemy will be crushed,” declared a banner at the government-sponsored rally in Moscow on Sept. 7. “Victory will be ours.”

Yeah, sure. And the world is so much safer since another outspoken opponent of evil began his crusade against it three years ago (nearly 15,000 Iraqi dead and counting, 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, terrorism a growth industry, the U.S. Constitution reeling). Could any response to a terrible wrong be less effective than brutal, generalized retaliation?

“When the victims are children, the sort of horror on show in Beslan … represents the adult world’s ultimate betrayal of innocence,” Simon Tisdale wrote recently in London’s The Guardian. “Here is a shared disgrace … an international crying shame, beseeching an urgent remedy.”

The Putins and Bushes of the world equate strength with the capacity and will to commit violence, then use the deaths of innocents as a pretext to unleash forces guaranteed to cause the deaths of untold more innocents. Enough! On the freshly dug graves of the 200 dead schoolchildren of Beslan, enough!

Let us face up to our “shared disgrace” at these deaths. Let us transmute our outrage, our wild grief, into a calm and rational unity of purpose: a vow, at the very least, to disarm our impulses and emotions, as we assess the danger and gather our young to us. We cannot, in this world we have created, protect them sheerly with force of arms. Consider what happened when desperate, armed civilians tried to do so in Beslan.

“The battle could have been prevented if civilians had obeyed orders to hold their fire,” the Moscow Times reported, quoting one of the negotiators — former Ingush President Ruslan Aushev — who was on the phone with the hostage-takers as hostilities broke out.

“Servicemen forming a cordon around the school were ordered to stop firing, but the civilians continued shooting, he said. Unsure of what would happen next, the attackers detonated their explosives in the school.”

And the hostages who survived the explosions were forced to flee into a crossfire, possibly to be cut down by the retaliatory fury of their own loved ones. This, oh Lord, is what I would call a crying shame.

The Chechen separatists who commandeered the school and strung it with bombs, holding 1,100 people hostage, certainly fit any working definition of evil, and are undeserving of human sympathy, but they didn’t do it because they “hated Russia’s freedoms.” They emerged, as all terrorists do, out of a context of extreme injustice. The genocidal brutality inflicted on their small state by Putin and his predecessors bespoke a soulless contempt for human life they merely returned in kind.

Masha Gessen, writing recently in Slate, reviews the history of Chechen suffering, dating back to World War II, when Stalin deported half a million Chechens to Siberia, forcibly herding them into cattle cars. Half died en route.

Russia has waged two wars with independence-minded Chechnya following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The invasion Boris Yeltsin launched in 1994 lasted two years and cost 80,000 Chechen (and 4,000 Russian) lives, destroyed the region’s infrastructure and left it a virtual criminal state.

Putin himself, as prime minister, began round two in 1999, following a wave of terrorist attacks by separatists. He responded to public fear and ignorance with security-state bravado, promising, Gessen notes, “to bomb Chechnya into submission. The bombing has been going on for five years.”

This is the context of the Beslan tragedy, when 32 fanatics decided to respond to Putin’s tough-on-terror swagger with a message written in the blood of schoolchildren.