Investigate Russia’s response to seige

Over the weekend, Russian special forces tossed an opiate sedative gas into a theater taken hostage by Chechen rebels protesting Russia’s invasion of their country. They demanded Russia pull out its troops and provide them with a safe car. They killed two hostages and threatened to start killing the rest Saturday morning. Some had explosives taped to their bodies wired to a handheld switch. They mined the theater.

In response, the Russian special forces stormed the building after knocking out the inhabitants. The gas they used was apparently an opium derivative and worked so quickly that the rebels didn’t even have time to detonate their explosives. The Russian forces stormed the building, executed over half the rebels and removed the hostages. But the gas killed over 100 of the starving, nerve-wracked hostages.

Some have condemned Russian authorities’ decision to use the gas, while others, including the George W. Bush administration, have laid the blame squarely on the rebels and stand behind Russian President Putin’s leadership. But the case is not so clear-cut.

One can hardly blame the Russian authorities for using the gas to end the standoff. The rebels threatened to kill all the hostages, and they had already wired the building – and themselves – to explode. Any physical raid and they surely would have blown up the building, hostages and all. The gas made a raid possible and probably saved lives in the total accounting. But strikingly, doctors standing by to help the survivors were not provided an antidote to the gas. Russian authorities also appear not to have taken into account the increased effect of the gas on the hostages’ severely weakened physical condition.

But when Bruce Willis is not available to end a hostage crisis, the government must make such hard decisions. Sometimes there is no option that will save all hostages. In a world replete with terrorists, hard choices have to be made. At the same time, such choices should be made with an eye toward the preservation of life. Russia appears not to have executed their move perfectly. Next time, it may be the United States facing its own hard decision and our leaders must make that hard decision with conviction, but also with greater wisdom.