The unspeakable tragedy in Beslan, the town in Southern Russia where terrorists seized a school on the first day of class and where more than 300 people, mostly children, were killed after a two-day siege, came on the heels of two other terrorist attacks in Russia. First, 90 people died in the destruction of two passenger planes, apparently by suicide bombers from Chechnya. Then, a Chechen woman blew herself up near a subway station in Moscow, leaving 10 dead and more than 50 injured.
Our first instinct is not only to feel horror and pity, and revulsion at the people who committed this evil act, but also to sympathize with the people of Russia as fellow targets of terrorism. Things being the way they are, Beslan today could be Anytown USA tomorrow.
Official statements from Russia, including comments by President Vladimir Putin, have been calculated to emphasize that the atrocity in Beslan is linked not only to the Chechen separatist movement but to the same global radical Islamic terror network that was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and other bombings and murders around the world.
At a meeting with Western journalists and academics, Putin lashed out at those in the West who believe that the Chechen rebels have valid claims and call for a negotiated solution. "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants, and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" he asked.
This rhetoric is bound to strike a chord. But it also obscures important differences between the two situations. If anything, a much closer analogy is the conflict in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the occupied territories -- and in that conflict, Russia has consistently urged Israel to negotiate rather than rely on military force to quell Palestinian violence.
The Palestinians, like the Chechens, have specific demands for independent statehood. But even there, the differences far outweigh the similarities.
Palestinian militants seek the destruction of Israel, not just a state of their own; not even the most extreme Chechen factions want Russia destroyed and all of its lands turned over to the Chechens. Israel, unlike Russia, was willing to negotiate with the Palestinian leadership and accede to many of its demands for autonomy.
Finally, whatever human rights abuses Israel may have committed in the occupied territories pale in comparison to the Russian Army's wholesale atrocities in Chechnya: indiscriminate aerial bombardment that has reduced cities to rubble, massacres of civilians, kidnappings for ransom, looting, torture, and rape. Accountability is nonexistent. Earlier this year, a rare prosecution of two soldiers who admitted to the cold-blooded murder of several passengers in a car they had stopped for a routine inspection ended in acquittal after the soldiers claimed that they acted on the orders of their commanding officer (who denied giving such orders and was never charged).
It's fairly certain that the Chechen separatists have links to international Islamic terrorism, though initial Russian claims that 10 Arabs were among the slain attackers now appear to be discredited. Yet, according to knowledgable observers such as Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, it was a case of the Islamic radicals latching onto the Chechen separatist cause, rather than being a driving force behind it.
One thing should be made clear. Nothing that the Russian military has done in Chechnya excuses or even mitigates the horror inflicted by the terrorists on their victims in Beslan. Indeed, under the circumstances, calls for Russia to change its policy in Chechnya are ill-advised and ill-timed.
If a policy change comes about as a response to the terrorist attacks, the rest of the world will have learned precisely the wrong lesson: terror works. The right lesson is this: Even if you have valid grievances, you will squander whatever sympathy you are due by resorting to the murder of innocents to further your cause.
But we should also be wary of Russia's attempt to use this crisis to hitch its wagon to the war against international terror. Russian atrocities in Chechnya do not justify terrorism. But right now, it seems likely that the Putin regime in Russia will use terrorism to justify a new wave of repression, both against Chechens and against the government's critics in the press. And that is something the West should not condone.