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Anne Applebaum - Columnist

The Irrationality of Terror

By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page A23

Funerals for 334 people, half of them children. Hundreds more -- we may never know how many -- in hospitals or "missing," presumed dead. A town ravaged, a school destroyed, photographs of bloody children, wailing mothers. This is what the Chechen terrorists who attacked and destroyed a school in Beslan, southern Russia, achieved with their guns and bombs last week.

But did they "achieve" anything else? One of the hardest things to understand about tragedies such as the one in Beslan is the motivation of the murderers. At the moment little is known about their identities, except that they seem to have been led by local Chechens and Ingush. Officials claim some were Arabs, although former hostages have not yet confirmed that. Little is known about their stated aims, which allegedly included independence for the Russian republic of Chechnya, withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, and an end to the nearly 10 years of brutal Russian-Chechen conflict in Chechnya. The only certainty is that they will achieve none of them.


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On the contrary: Far from helping the Chechens resist Russian invasion, they have deeply damaged that resistance. The Western public, which has been moderately, if unevenly, sympathetic to the plight of the Chechens, will now be less so. Less public sympathy translates into even less Western official support for the Chechens, whose legitimate national aspirations have long conflicted with everybody's realpolitik need to have good relations with Russia. In response to the crisis, the statement issued by the American ambassador to Moscow spoke of U.S.-Russian cooperation in the "global war on terrorism," of the need to "rededicate ourselves to the global struggle." Not surprisingly, there was no mention of an equally urgent need to end the war in Chechnya.

Less Western interest, in turn, means the Russian government feels even less pressure to negotiate with moderate Chechens, or any Chechens at all. Certainly it feels no internal pressure. President Vladimir Putin put it very succinctly: "You tell us that we should talk to everyone, including child-killers," he said Monday night. "Just imagine that people who shoot children in the back came to power anywhere on our planet. Just ask yourself that, and you will have no more questions about our policy in Chechnya."

Notice here that Putin draws no distinction between the terrorists of Beslan and legitimate, independent Chechen leaders, or even the Chechen nation as a whole. When he launched the second invasion of Chechnya in 1999, he called the attack a "counter-terrorist operation in the northern Caucasus." The foreign spokesman of the former Chechen government wrote yesterday that "with hindsight" he now sees that Putin used this kind of language to discredit the idea of Chechen autonomy, and to link the Chechen rebels firmly with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The Beslan terrorists have now helped the Russian president complete that process.

There are other examples of terrorist groups whose methods have had the opposite effect from what their leaders say they intend, the most obvious being the case of the Palestinians. Decades' worth of PLO terrorist attacks on crippled tourists and Olympic athletes achieved far less for the Palestinian people than television pictures of Palestinian children protesting in the streets. Even more was achieved, or almost achieved, when the Palestinians briefly ceased to use terrorism in the 1990s. By contrast, the resumption of Palestinian terrorism, and particularly the suicide bombing campaign, has led to a profound change of heart, a hardening of positions and, as in Russia, a much larger population of Israelis who assume that all Palestinians, whatever their views or background or grievances, are would-be terrorists.

But there are also examples of nations that have managed to repel invasions, or at least oppose them, while maintaining a degree of sympathy in the outside world, and even among the population against which they are fighting. Think of the Afghan rebels who fought the Soviet Union in the 1980s but didn't turn to terrorism. Or the many resistance movements that have achieved some degree of change, thanks in part to their success in garnering international support: Polish Solidarity, say, or the Nelson Mandela wing of the African National Congress.

There may be an emotional explanation for the Beslan tragedy, as there may be for the young Palestinian girls who blow themselves up to kill Israeli girls: hatred, despair, the brutalization caused by many years of war, fanaticism and desire for revenge. Some of the Beslan survivors have said that they were told by their captors that "Russian soldiers are killing our children in Chechnya, so we are here to kill yours." But there is no moral justification, no intellectual line of reasoning, no political logic.

The hardest thing in the world is to resist injustice without hatred, or to resist brutality without brutality, or to fight any kind of war without losing your own humanity. By failing to do so, the Chechen terrorists may have just defeated their own stated cause.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company