eye for an eye

To begin with, I quote at some length from a
recent Fareed Zakaria column
in Newsweek:

The Chechens were forced into the Russian Empire in 1862, after
45 years of bloody resistance. They were granted independence
in 1918, but in 1920 the Soviet Union invaded the country again
and brutally suppressed periodic revolts. In 1944 Joseph Stalin
applied a Stalinist solution to the Chechnya problem. He deported
most of its inhabitants to Siberia—more than half a million—and
burned their villages to the ground. (Stalin’s successor,
Nikita Khrushchev, allowed the survivors to return to their lands
in the late 1950s.)

In 1990, as the Soviet Union was breaking up, a national conference
of all Chechen political groups declared independence. Russia
refused to recognize it and in 1994 launched the first Chechen
war. After two bloody years Moscow was unable to win and signed
a peace treaty with the Chechens. In 1999 Russia reinvaded Chechnya,
and since then has had 100,000 troops in this republic, the size
of Vermont.

The human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya since then
are well-documented.

Fast forward to the present:
last month, a group of roughly forty Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow
theater and took 800 Russians hostage. A tense three day stand-off
ensued; the rebels ringed the theater with explosives and said that
they would begin executing hostages if Russia did not withdraw its
troops from Chechnya.

On Oct. 26, Russian Special Forces pumped gas (which they refused
for days to identify, but have
now revealed
is based on derivatives of fentanyl, an opiate-based
narcotic 100 times more powerful than morphine) into the theater,
stormed inside, and executed the rebels that remained alive by shooting
them in the head as they lay unconscious. The Russian gov’t claims
that roughly 110 hostages were killed by the gas; in a statement,
Putin said, "We were not able to save everyone. Forgive us."

Recently, "unnamed gov’t officials" leaked
to the Russian press (MSNBC link no longer active, but check here) that Moscow’s estimates are deceptively
low, that as many as 300 hostages may have died. Questions remain
regarding the absence of medical personnel on the scene (some victims
had to wait hours for medical care) and the whereabouts of numerous
unaccounted-for hostages. (News stories about these subjects are
not published in Russia due to Putin’s increasing suppression of
the independent press.)

 

According to Gennady Gudkov, a deputy in the Russian Parliament
(quoted here),
"This is one of the biggest victories anyone has ever scored
in the war on terrorism.” Pause for a moment and give that
statement some thought.

If you dropped onto Earth from Mars on Oct. 25, perhaps you might
be persuaded that Putin handled things the right way (though saving
500 by killing 300 is surely a devil’s bargain). And that is precisely
the perspective Putin would like you to take: that this crisis emerged
full blown from out of nowhere.

But of course it didn’t. If one heeds history, one sees that this
is the latest in a steadily escalating exchange of brutalities,
an exchange that will surely not stop here. Chechnya is, by now,
virtually lawless, governed (if that is the term) by increasingly
desperate and violent bands of marauders, united only by their hatred
of Russia.

But President Bush has put himself in a position where he _has_
to sanction this kind of policy (even though, as Zakaria points
out, he condemned Russia’s actions in Chechnya during his campaign).
He needs Putin’s support for his war on Iraq. Putin sees the situation
clearly: in return for his support of Bush’s widening war(s), he
can join the "war on terrorism," i.e., he can redefine
his own suppression of ethnic splinter groups as part of America’s
noble effort against Evil.

The same strategy has occurred to others, and the governments of
Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia and others are following suit, declaring
their own enemies "terrorists" and their struggles part
of our war. In a creepy turn, an openly admiring Chinese gov’t has
recently requested
the recipe
for Russia’s raid gas. How quickly innovations become
precedent.

These regimes are accustomed to the mindset that says: respond
to any dissent with suppression; respond to any violence with overwhelming
violence in return. Any attempt to understand dissenters or ameliorate
their concerns (concerns frequently shared by many who do not support
violence) is "weakness" and not to be considered. The
consequences of this way of thinking are on display in unending
wars all over the globe (take a glance at Israel and Palestine for
a particularly stark case study).

However, now that the United States has more or less declared this
mindset to be explicit national policy, gov’ts without our humanitarian
or legal scruples are jumping on our coat tails. As this continues,
and it certainly will, we will be hard put to separate their definitions
of "terrorism" from ours, their need to preemptively attack
perceived threats from ours. International law is easier to agree
on than what is or isn’t "evil."

Like them, we will never make ourselves safe with violence; we
will only become more embroiled in conflict abroad and repression
at home. As long as our ill-defined war grows, we can look forward
to a future filled with the kind of "victories" Russia
recently experienced.

 

Update–11/11/02

Today I stumbled on a New York Times editorial
by Zbigniew Brzezinski
that emphasizes the point I’m making.
You can’t read the whole thing without paying for it, but it is
quoted at length here
by Robert Wright.