The depravity of today's terrorist:
Not even the children are safe
(Letter from the Editor headline in Saturday's Globe and Mail)
As of this Sunday morning, the reports are still vague, but it is clear that hundreds of people - half of them children, we are told - are dead following the bloody end to a standoff at a high school in Beslan, a city in southern Russia. This, following hard on the heels of not one, but two, jet-liners apparently blown up by unknown - but presumably Chechen - terrorists1.
For about half his column, nearly 400 words, the Globe's editor-in-chief foregos his usual self-indulgent prattle in favour of naive outrage and fear.
Though Greenspon vaguely alludes to the "war" in Chechnya that Russia has waged for the past 10 or so years, not once does he acknowledge the obvious: that this attack (presuming it was indeed perpetrated by Chechens) was not some monstrous, irrational and evil strike from the blue, but rather a result (if an indirect one) of that imperialist war - simply put, and again assuming the hostage-takers were Chechen, the school would not have been captured if Russia had not invaded the break-away country in 1999, following its defeat by Chechen rebels in 1996.
Since that invasion, thousands of civilians have been killed by Russian troops, hundreds of thousands have fled the country, and the capital city of Grozny has been flattened.
Like Israel in Palestine, or the US in Iraq, the Russian war on Chechnya is one between grossly mis-matched antagonists: jet-fighters and bombers versus shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, tanks versus AK-47s. How easy it is for us in the comfort and relative safety of the First World to condemn the brutal tactics of terrorists while ignoring the plight of those victimized from the sky by "our" sides in these conflicts.
Why hasn't Greenspon written an outraged column about the deaths of Palestinian children, or Iraqi children, or Chechen children? Likely without realizing it, Greenspon glances at the truth - "Whether you're in Bali or Istanbul," he says, "New York or Riyadh, Madrid or Beersheba, the threat permeates the air" - and then turns away, as from some light so bright it might burn. Why doesn't he include those blown up from the air in Gaza, in Kabul, in Bhagdad, in Grozny?
What is really causing our arm-chair outrage is not the deaths of a few hundred civilians, nor that half of the victims are children.2
The threat permeates the air. We feel vulnerable, we feel frightened. And so, to comfort ourselves, we tell ourselves soothing lies - at least, we tell ourselves lies meant to soothe, but that - in reality - serve more to justify ourselves, when "our" side commits another atrocity, when "we" decide that another third-world country is a threat and invade it, killing thousands, wounding thousands more, arresting the "guilty" and the "innocent".
Fear is at the heart of our outrage, though there were no Iraqi warships cruising off the North American coast, no Chechen aircraft bombing Russian soil at will, no Palestinian gunships firing missiles on Israeli apartment blocks.
Fear, that this might happen to me, and also, perhaps even more, disgust - not at the deaths themselves, for we readily accept them as "collateral damage" when it is "our" planes dropping bombs from on high rather than "terrorists" putting their own bodies on the line for their own killing. We are disgusted by "the terrorists" because their violence is personal, because - when "they" blow up a school, or a hospital, or take down a civilian airliner3, they do it in the only way they can: up close and personal.
"The terrorists" are so uncouth - so rude, so personal, so poor. Not for terrorists the crocodile tears of the powerful when children are murdered; not for terrorists the abstraction of killing from the air, from tanks or from helicopters.
Not only are we outraged that such weak and ragged people can hurt us, we are offended that they can do so. They hurt our pride as well as our confidence. And maybe, in our heart of hearts, we know that people really don't do such things for no reason at all4.
In fact, killing civilians is the point for terrorists. Without tanks, without planes, their strongest weapon is public opinion in their enemies' countries. The weak cannot defeat the strong by playing according to the rules of the strong. Famously, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese lost every battle they fought against the Americans during that long, brutal war5. At the price of millions of their own lives, they "won" their war by making it one too costly for the US to win; slowly, a majority of America's people on some level came to realize that "keeping South Vietnam free" was not worth the price of the blood of their own children. The gruesome wars of attrition now playing out in such places as Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya are being fought by the terrorists according to the same logic - that at some point, the people ultimately supporting the invading armies will say, "Enough!" and the politicians will bring their soldiers home.
Resistance movements think long-term, because they have to. The Vietnamese fought for close to a century to free their country from foreign rule, taking on the French, then the Japanese, then the French again, and finally, the Americans. They paid the price in bodies, in ecological catastrophe and - no doubt - in psychological damage to its people that is still not fully healed.
Pretending that such atrocities as the taking of the school in Beslan is the result of some mysterious "evil" that must be combatted with raw power and nothing more is the kind of moral idiocy that can only result in more attacks like it; can only result in more "collateral damage" and more desperate people recruited to a brutal cause. (And that can only result in our own complicity in similar - and often worse - crimes of our own.)
Terrorism isn't murder, it is war, conducted according to the resources of the terrorists.
But if it is war, you say, then we must fight! If it is war, then surely we are under attack and so, regretful as it might be, we must resisted the enemy and destroy it, maybe regretting the innocents caught in in the cross-fire, but nevertheless sure of our own, basic goodness. After all, they destroyed the World Trade Center; they blow up Israeli buses and restaurants; they blow up Russian airliners and kill Russian children6. Monsters all, they must be exterminated like vermin and only then will it be possible to sit down and worry about the "root causes".
And so, Vladimir Putin vows to step up the "fight against terrorism", which will conviently mean even more restrictions on the press, on political freedom, on due process than the Kremlin has already managed.
And so, George Bush will push more "Homeland Security" -style initiatives that will further erode American civil liberties in the name of those same liberties.
And so, Ariel Sharon will continue his "counter-terrorism" policies that serve only to weaken what little civil society still exists in Palestine, strengthening the Muslim fanatics and producing more and more young men (and women) willing to kill and die for God and country.
We are fighting a war - or rather, we are fighting a number of wars. And, if we let fear serve as our guide, we will go on fighting them, both on foreign soil and on our own. Slowly (but not that slowly), we will give up one liberty after another in the name of security; we will become ever-more suspicious of our neighbours, ever-more ready to doubt those who don't conform to our idea of the norm.
If we do not stop, and think, about why we are at war, and with whom, we will doom ourselves along with our "enemies."
The next time a politician talks of "us against them", of "good against evil", we would be well-served to ask: In Palestine, in Chechnya, in Irak - whose soldiers stand on whose land? Whose helicopters launch missilies at homes and schools and hospitals? Whose F-16s strafe parks and mosques and residential neighbourhoods?
If we don't ask these questions, and if we don't follow-up by wondering why it is our soldiers in their countries, our hands will hold so much blood only our children's children will be able to wash it away.
- "Terrorist" is a much-abused term. The label is invariably used by one side to describe the other, typically by the stronger side reacting to an "unfair" counter-attack by the weaker side. While I don't believe it is a useful term, I am using it with quotation marks because I don't want to enter into the game of defining one group of fighters as "terrorists", another as "guerillas" and yet another as "freedom fighters".
- "(It is ludicrous that I need to state the obvious but, to forestall pointless accusations that I am in favour of slaughtering children, permit me to say: I am not in favour of slaughtering children. For that matter, I am not in favour of slaughtering teenagers or adults. Killing people is Not a Good Thing. Okay?)
- Does anybody remember when the US warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 passengers? But that, of course, was an "accident", not "terrorism" - and never mind asking what the US was doing in the Persian Gulf in the first place.
- Yes, there arepsychopaths who kill for pleasure. No doubt such people are attracted to "terrorist" groups (as, no doubt, such people are also attracted to police and military work. But when whole groups begin acting in such a way, they do so with a reason, however twisted, that justifies those actions. Sometimes those reasons are fraudulent, sometimes they are based on legitimate grievances; usually, the truth, as it so often does, lies somewhere in the middle.
- Let us not forget that "conflict" meant the death - dare I call it the murder? - of more than 2 million Vietnamese, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and Laotians, while the US military dropped on those tiny countries more TNT-equivalent than did all of the military forces combined during the Second World War. If the capture of a school in Russia is terrorism, what else can one call an illegal war such as the one in southeast Asia?
- As to what actually happened in Beslan, I think the jury is still out. The reports I've read and heard suggest it is more than possible the actual killing was started by an over-eager Russian military, an organization never known for its subtlety or diplomatic skills. I suspect we may in the weeks ahead learn Beslan shares a disturbing similarity to the debacle in Moscow in 2002. But I'll leave that possibility aside; it isn't really relevant to my main point.