Lessons Beslan should teach us

"Terrorist" is the only applicable term for those to whom collateral damage is policy.

Nothing can justify the senseless slaughter of innocent men, women and children. Too often, explanations and excuses dominate public discourse and gloss over the tragedy itself.

While young life is not more valuable than its older counterparts, the total waste of potential and promise makes last week’s tragedy acutely depressing. The monstrous acts of Chechen rebels in Beslan, Russia, this past week cannot be forgiven and cannot be excused.

When a group’s means contradict the very principles of its ends, all righteous purpose degenerates into barbarism and chaos.

Chechen leaders have attempted to distance their cause from the Beslan tragedy, but those efforts bear a sad resemblance to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s hollow condemnations of Hamas suicide bombings.

Oppression of a people’s civil and human rights, one of these being political self-determination, are unacceptable. But such oppression can only be fought though acceptable channels. Intentionally inflicting harm on innocent parties in an attempt to destabilize the state that governs them does not qualify. Like torture or arbitrary detention, terrorism violates human rights norms.

Hopefully, groups that consider themselves freedom fighters will one day realize that suicide “belts,” incinerated vehicles and collateral damage will not bring their dreams of statehood or independence any closer to reality. That lesson undoubtedly helped turn terrorists into negotiators in Northern Ireland, with positive results.

Chechen separatist groups must know that martyrdom will not win them the world’s sympathy, and will only strengthen the hand of Kremlin hardliners who favor a military solution to the conflict.

To be clear, our disapproval of the Beslan raiders’ action does not absolve the Russian state for its failures. Russia’s bloody war with Chechen rebels is a moral and practical failure, but no policy can excuse the actions of the hostage- takers.

The war in Chechnya has always been a textbook example of asymmetric warfare, with lightly armed rebels facing Russian tanks and jets. The tragedy in Beslan, like several other recent terrorist attacks in Russia, might be the logical outgrowth of guerilla-style tactics against the Russian military.

It hasn’t taken long for Russians to start asking who is to blame for last week’s deadly school siege in North Ossetia. As families have begun the somber process of burying loved ones in the village of Beslan, Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing unusually intense criticism for a crumbling domestic security apparatus, his clumsy response to the crisis and a decade-long Russian military campaign in Chechnya. Putin’s ability to insulate himself from domestic criticism is hardly a blessing for Russian democracy.

Between dishonest public relations, a slow and uncoordinated response, and obstinately not seeking outside assistance, the Kremlin was close to inept in handling the crisis. They deliberately underreported the hostage count to downplay the situation’s gravity. This only worsened the situation and destroyed what little trust the Russian public might have had in their government.

They failed to prepare sufficient medical facilities to respond to a possible influx of injured people. Victims should not have to rely on citizens’ vehicles for transportation to a grossly understaffed hospital.

They refused to ask for help from the international community until a crisis had become a tragedy. As was the case in Chernobyl 18 years ago, they stubbornly decided this was solely an “internal Russian matter.”

In the future, Russia must be candid and seek assistance when faced with a threat of this magnitude. Still, recriminations and finger-pointing should not distract us from a few realities.

While the word “terrorist” has become overused in today’s culture, there is no other applicable term for those to whom collateral damage is policy.

Defenders of today’s “freedom fighters” should recall yesterday’s true freedom fighters: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi. Their struggles against injustice were not only peaceful, they were successful. But politics aside, the slaughtering of innocents by U.S. troops, Chechen rebels, or al-Qaida is never acceptable.