the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 October 31


The global protest movement is familiar to all of us, and an object of much affection for many of us ― though not me. I can sympathize to an extent with the sentiment, but I believe it to be misguided. Beyond that, I cannot understand why the protesters spend so much time protesting supposed economic imperialism when there is such a wealth of the real thing in the world. I am thinking, for the moment, of Chechnya.

That is largely because terrorism does, in fact, work. It almost always achieves the first of its goals, which is to draw attention to a neglected issue. The whole world has been thinking about Chechnya recently. Fifty Chechens took over a theater in Moscow last week with some eight hundred people in it, threatening to kill the hostages unless Russia pulled out of Chechnya. That wasn’t going to happen, of course. The Russian special forces knocked out the occupants with narcotic gas and rescued most of the hostages; but almost all of the militants and more than a hundred of the hostages died in the operation.

The Chechens who did this were calculating, like the Palestinian Arabs, that the justice of their cause is so apparent that if people are forced to consider it, they will be supportive, regardless of any negative impressions that the terrorist act itself may leave. It seems to have worked for the Palestinian Arabs.

The second way in which terrorism works is that it gives ordinary people a sense that they have a stake in the issue. More specifically, it teaches them to fear injury and death as a consequence of policies that they are quite often complicit in endorsing. This terrorization effect has advanced the cause of, again, the Palestinian Arabs, as well as the Catholics in Ulster. Curiously, it is related to the sentiment that prompted Russia’s earlier withdrawal from Chechnya, and the United States’ withdrawal from Vietnam. The deaths began to hit home; voters were no longer convinced that the issue was worth dying for.

There are a few notable exceptions where this strategy has ostensibly backfired. The one seemingly most clear is the bombing in Omagh, which cost the Irish republican movement dramatically in public sympathy. We could also mention the World Trade Center; its bombing led to the near-complete destruction of the bombers’ patronage and sanctuary in Afghanistan. But it so successfully achieved the first objective of publicity, and so successfully polarized the issue into a war between Christendom and Islam, that it may not really have backfired.

The undiscerning citizen of the world might be inclined to add a third example of backfire: the bombing of apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999 that formed a key justification for Boris Yeltsin’s and Vladimir Putin’s reinvasion of Chechnya. But virtually every neutral observer understood that the Russian government’s attribution of those bombings to Chechen separatists was a lie, an old-school frame-up. For some the lie was so demonic that they concluded the Russian government had ordered the bombing itself, to provide the rationale.

Russia is not the world’s leading empire; that would be China, where the lands and peoples of the empire are subject to Mao’s party dictatorship, and China, as well as being the largest state in the world, has one of the worst human-rights records. Broadly speaking every state is an empire, a dominion, given that every one has unwilling citizens held to the state’s rule by force. But the most liberal states have provisions for democratic self-determination, and we can point to the Czechs, who outnumbered the Slovaks in Czechoslovakia and could have subjugated them through majority rule, but opted against. Is Russia another example?

The Soviet Union was the old Russian Empire, no more, no less. Look at the borders. Look at the language. Look at the ruling class. Most of all, look at the behavior. The Russians had always felt that they were entitled to rule all of the surrounding peoples in a vast expanse of northern Eurasia. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the moderates who displaced the tsar, they immediately began the process of reconquering the rest of the tsar’s former subjects. And they succeeded. It would have been one thing if they had been genuinely interested in liberating these peoples from their local masters, as they claimed. In fact, as in Napoleon’s “republicanization” of western Europe, they were merely exchanging one tyranny for another.

Things continued in that state for some time. The brutality and atrocity of the Bolshevik regime began under Lenin and Trotsky, reached its zenith under Stalin, and included every one of their successors, even the relatively humane and liberal Gorbachev. The western states in the Cold War described the conflict in terms of “freedom” and “tyranny”, but demonstrated their true interests by acting as if the conflict were between capitalism and Marxism ― and perhaps for the western powers this amounted to the same thing. The result was that the Cold War was fought on economic issues, and each side behaved imperially, committing atrocities and supporting appalling dictatorships on their side of the economic divide.

Gorbachev claimed to be the Abraham Lincoln of his country. This offends some US patriots but seems reasonable if you believe, as I do, that Lincoln was an unprincipled pragmatist whose primary, if not sole, concern, was preserving the United States as a single entity, of preserving the empire conquered by his predecessors. He declared “free” only those slaves who were under Confederate control, thus freeing no one; and did this as a political tactic. Gorbachev began glasnost and perestroika as a way to salvage the empire and his own party’s power; when the new freedoms led to calls for independence from parts of the empire, he pulled off the gloves and cracked down.

When Gorbachev was displaced by a putsch, and the putsch was thwarted, those parts of Russia that had been previously ― and arbitrarily, of course ― granted the status of “constituent republic” were allowed to declare independence from Moscow. Those which had been maintained within the boundaries of the Russian “constituent republic”, the RSFSR, were not. End of story. Once this initial amnesty took place, there would never be another. By taking this action the Russians not only excised some of the most troublesome parts of their empire ― the defiant Baltics and Armenia, and the Islamic provinces in Central Asia that were showing signs of radicalization ― but also ensured the cooperation of these newly-sovereign states in Russia’s program of subjugating the remnants of its empire. The complicity, particularly of the Slavic and Central Asian states, was thus purchased, and the Russian economic sphere remained largely intact besides.

There are, certainly, many captive peoples remaining in the Russian empire. It is hard to say what distinguishes Chechnya from Tatarstan, Karelia, Yakutia, Dagestan, Buryat, or countless others, unless it is the lengths to which the Chechens are willing to go, the fact that they are willing to use violence, and to die. The Chechens aren’t playing around. They’re serious. They want out.

The response, naturally, is something along the tired lines of “no change of borders through forcible means”; but since changes of borders are also denied through peaceable means, there is a bit of a quandary.

There are two terms in Russia’s justification that ought to tip us off every time they are used ― and they are used often, by states the world over. The first is ‘internal affairs’. This is meant to suggest that anything that takes place in a sovereign state is the concern of that state alone, meaning the concern alone of its government, regardless of how that government keeps itself in power. The second is ‘territorial integrity’. This is the geopolitical principle that there is something sacred about inter-state borders, and that the government in place in a particular state, again however constituted, is eternally entitled to the control of all the land currently under its dominion.

Of great concern is that some, including liberals in the west, are rhetorically supportive of the arguments. How often do we hear, in the Iraq debate, that Iraq is a “sovereign state”? Quite often, and Iraq is truly a sovereign state; but so what? We wouldn’t allow child abuse to be excused because it was “none of our business”, or wife-beating to continue because “a man’s home is his castle”. Nor should we allow this kind of abuse. The fact is that ‘internal affairs’ and ‘territorial integrity’ are terms that are never ― repeat, never ― used outside of the context of justifying tyranny and repression. These are passwords in the international mystery; whoever utters them is a villain.

An appropriate axiom notes that truth is the first casualty of war; and this is war. The Russians have, as warring parties will, underestimated losses on their own side, in this case hostages, starting with ten, finally admitting to one hundred eighteen. They consistently denied that the gas was responsible for the many deaths of hostages, though that is now what independent reports are concluding. And there is at least one report that the unconscious militants were summarily executed by the special forces. I do not fault the special forces for the raid; they made a difficult decision on reasonable evidence that the militants were a suicide squad who would eventually kill everyone in the theater, and had begun to do so.

No, the fault lies with Putin. As prime minister under Yeltsin, he arrived on the scene with a Chechnya that was already independent de facto. Russia had fought to preserve the empire there and had lost, had suffered humiliating defeats and the deaths of many, many soldiers, and Russians had lost the will to lose any more of their own soldiers, their children and siblings, in the senseless fight. They had negotiated a truce in 1996 and let Chechnya go, albeit without international recognition. There it could have lain; but Putin, a veteran of the KGB’s effort to preserve imperial control in East Germany, cooked up a terrorist bombing in Moscow, and sent in the troops again.

Since he did so, the Russians have lost one hundred twenty-five soldiers every week, essentially sending in suicide squad after suicide squad on his holy mission. And the prize, the land which Russia is unwilling to give up, it has by all accounts destroyed, laid completely waste. At best, this reinvasion was vindictive, a comeuppance for the Chechens by a new tsar smarting from old humiliations of his dynasty. At worst, this was a cold, calculating act of scorched earth, a destruction of Chechnya as a warning to any other imperial subjects who might think about defying Moscow. So let Putin shut up about terrorists. He is one.


Original version


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