What's Left

October 28, 2002

Unwitting conscripts

By Stephen Gowans

You won't hear it said that Russian President Vladimir Putin gassed his own people, at least not in newspapers with wide circulation. But that's what he did. Of the hostages taken by Chechen rebels, 117 are dead, of which 115 were killed by a secret gas Russian security forces used to subdue the hostage takers. A further 150 are in hospital suffering from the effects of the gas. Russian authorities refused to disclose what gas was used, thereby preventing doctors from administering an antidote. Safeguarding a state secret, it seems, was far more important than saving the lives of 115 Russians.

Of course, it could be said that comparing Putin to Saddam Hussein--the latter's name now synonymous with the sentence "he gassed his own people" -- is wholly indefensible. While 115 hostages were killed, hundreds more were saved. What were the alternatives -- to let the terrorists blow up the theatre they had overrun, killing everyone inside?

That was one alternative, an unattractive one to be sure, but if we're going to do an accounting of the possibilities, it's one of three. The second was to undertake a rescue operation, knowing many would almost certainly be killed (the chosen alternative); and the third was to stop the war on Chechnya.

I doubt there was ever any possibility that events would unfold differently. The Russian authorities would attempt a rescue, hundreds would be killed, and the deaths would be used to build support for a stepped up war on Chechnya specifically and on terrorism more broadly. There's no way caving into the hostages' demand that the war be stopped will receive even a moment's consideration, I thought, after learning of the hostage taking. If you had to guess what was going through the minds of Putin and his advisors it would have had to be have been something like: What's the death of a few hundred against the geostrategic significance of suzerainty over oil-rich Chechnya?

Incidentally, the claim that Russia is waging war on Chechnya for control of oil and pipelines can be made without fear of being dismissed as an idiot. This passes as serious and incisive political observation in the Western press. However, the same claim made about the United States and its fixation on Iraq is treated with a good deal of hostility -- the product, we're told, of loony leftists with overactive imaginations and impaired analytical abilities. This is typical. The actions of foreign governments--those outside Washington's charmed circle of close allies--are invariably seen to be motivated by self-interest. But the same actions, carried out by Washington, are always seen to be motivated by lofty concerns: protecting and promoting human rights, ridding the world of evil dictators, stamping out terrorism, bringing democracy to the grateful victims of tyrants. Never has this been more obvious than in the concern that arose not too many months ago that foreign governments were using the war against terrorism as an excuse to silence dissent at home and pursue geopolitical goals abroad. That the same could be said of the United States in spades was never acknowledged, much less apprehended, the US being truly exceptional: the only country whose foreign policy is pure.

Others will say comparing Putin to the Iraqi leader is bizarre and offensive, because Putin was forced to take "a tough decision" to thwart a morally despicable act by terrorists. That we can all agree the hostage taking was morally despicable is clear. Too bad we can't all agree that Putin's war on Chechnya is on the same moral plane. It too is morally despicable, though the number of people willing to quickly and fervently agree with this truth is but a pale shadow of the number willing to denounce Chechen terrorism in no uncertain terms. Apparently, killing innocents is perfectly all right--at worst, regrettable, but justifiable--if the state does it.

But the difference I'll be reminded (not least by pro-Zionists), is the state never intends to kill innocents; terrorists do. On the contrary, the state always knows in advance that waging war will kill innocents. That it doesn't target individual civilians (laying aside the Israelis, who do), or always deliberately aim to kill civilians (though the allies did a fair bit of this in WWII, and the Pentagon has done the same in other conflicts), makes no difference, except in a disingenuous, hair-splitting way: Surgical strikes, smart bombs, and operations designed to "limit" civilian casualties invariably kill civilians in large numbers, either immediately, or from after-effects that take their toll days, months or years later. And in the case of the war in Chechnya, the bombardment of Grozny, the Chechen capital, was hardly a surgical operation that avoided the killing of numberless civilians. In other words, the Kremlin's actions amounted to rounding up non-combatants at random, and either blowing them up or putting at bullet through their head;  what the Chechen rebels were going to do with the hostages they took.

It could also be objected that where Saddam Hussein used gas against the Kurds with the intention of killing, Putin's motives were different; he didn't set out to kill the hostages; which is true, but it seems highly unlikely that he was unaware of the risks to hostages' lives his actions would occasion, but accepted the risks, in the same way war planners accept risks to civilians of their actions.

As to the "tough" decision Putin took to imperil the lives of the hostages, what exactly was tough about it? What's tough about deciding someone else has to die? Taking a decision that puts your own life in peril, or opens you up to charges of being an idiot, or soft, or impractical -- that's tough.

Too bad those who pride themselves on being practical and level-headed--not like those impractical pacifists who are always going on in a tiresome way about the immorality of war -- wouldn't let their practicality intrude for a moment on their always going on in a tiresome way about the immorality of war waged by those who don't have an airforce. While terrorism may be immoral (this is like telling smokers that cigarettes are bad for their health-- they know), it's also understandable to anyone with a genuinely practical bent that if you bring war to a people, they'll try to do the same to you, no matter how fervently or loudly you repeat the mantra, "there's no excuse for terrorism." If there's no excuse for terrorism, why are we letting our governments and their allies practise it vigorously on brown-skinned people in places like Central Asia and the Middle East?

When the state kills the innocent at random for political ends (as Russia has done in Chechnya, and the US has done in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, and, never satisfied, is about to do once again in Iraq), it should come as no surprise that the victims will try to do the same. The Chechen terrorists called it bringing the war home. Anyone who thinks that if Russians brought war to Grozny, Chechens wouldn't try to bring the war to Moscow, is suffering from a severely depleted imagination, perhaps depleted by repeating "there's no excuse for terrorism" one too many times. And if you're going to approve, or silently accept, Russia practising the terrorism of war against Chechens in Chechnya, on what grounds can you condemn Chechens for practising terrorism against Russians in Russia?

It would do ordinary people, Americans as much as Russians, a whole lot of good if they realized that the wars their governments wage abroad against other people in the name of national security do nothing to enhance their own personal security, and do quite the opposite. Had they died at the hands of Chechen terrorists, the deaths of the Russian hostages would have come at the end of a long chain of events set in motion by governments jockeying for position over control of oil, not the physical safety of their citizens. As it turned out, the Russians died from gas administered by their own government, but they died for oil, as unwitting conscripts, caught in the crossfire.

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