Terror Is No Answer for Chechen Terror

Bernard-Henri Levy's most recent book is "War, Evil and the End of History" (Melville House, 2004). This article was translated from the French by Amy Wilentz.

The hostage-taking in Beslan, Russia, with its massacre of innocents, with its cruelty, its carnage and its insane decision to break this absolutely final taboo -- the taboo of childhood -- fills us with an almost sacred terror. It has raised international terrorism to a new level.

No excuse can be made for the men and women capable of such an abomination. There can be no explanation -- not desperation, poverty or state crimes committed previously by the Russian army. Who, in inscribing this act in the book of a pitiable and tragic history, would even dare to seek a justification? The indisputable evidence requires that the sole object of compassion must be the shattered families, drunk with incredulity and pain, that have been in mourning since Friday for the child martyrs of North Ossetia.


Still, all the pain and anguish must not allow us to avoid critical reflection. Let’s take Putin, for example. We must not forget that Vladimir V. Putin did not cease, during the entire crisis, to misinform the parents of the children, to hush the mouths of journalists whom he considered too curious and to sabotage possible negotiations.


Look at the brutality of the assault and the madness of the tanks, that, according to certain witnesses, fired shells at the walls of the school. Let’s consider the indifference to the death of others, something we’d already seen when the Kursk submarine sank in 2000 and when the theater in Moscow was seized in 2002, an indifference that led Putin -- in sending in insufficiently trained and armed officers -- to knowingly take the risk of a bloodbath.

It must be said, and it must be repeated: Rather than doing everything to “protect the children,” as he had announced he would 24 hours before the Russian assault on the school, Putin gave the signal to begin the butchery. Terrorists are terrorists, but Putin paved their way.

Look at the Chechens, and the way in which officials in Moscow are already trying to use this misadventure to bring dishonor upon the entire Chechen nation. Putin is trying to assert a parallel; this is his Al Qaeda-ization of Chechnya. Moscow is seeking to dismiss the concerns of moderate Chechens, and there has been a smooth blending of those Chechens who protest Russia’s murderous attacks with those who participate in the nebulous darkness of international terror.

This comparison is unbearable. While one is mourning the dead of Beslan, one must also resist with all one’s strength the attempt to accuse all Chechnya of participating in the mass murder of civilians. What really happened is that a handful of nihilists hijacked a cause -- the cause of Chechen nationalism -- and their very actions, by definition, made a mockery of it, much as Osama bin Laden did with the Palestinian cause on Sept. 11.

Again: the Chechens. Let’s analyze the idea, rampant in the streets of Russia and North Ossetia, that only a tough, violent, final solution to the interminable Chechen question will allow the state to recover from its own Sept. 11. Chechens are not human, says this one, they are animals, beasts. Stalin was not wrong, says another, to want to exterminate every last one of them. We must finish the work of Stalin, the master of all Russias.

And so the entire post-Soviet political class, along with the military, take for granted that more -- rather than less -- anti-Chechen terror can be the only response to the terror of the terrorists. Well, on this point as well, we must distance ourselves from the post-Soviet political class and military. On this point, as on others, we must have the courage to reject the ex-KGB officers who advise Putin and who perhaps control him, and we must remind them that to be on the front lines in the war against terrorism still does not give them every right -- certainly not the right of responding to horror with horror, nor of disposing with the lives of the citizens of Grozny carelessly.


Did France’s Jacques Chirac stand up to Putin at any point? Did Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder? Did President Bush? Did the Netherlands’ foreign minister (who, the second he saw the tiniest raising of the eyebrow by his Russian opposite, politely withdrew the small question he had permitted himself to slip forward concerning the conditions under which the decision to attack the school had finally been made)?

And this is not the most distressing aspect of the affair. Nor any less shameful for the great democracies that are fighting against barbarism and for the rights of man -- for truth. As if our terror of terror forbade us to count to two. Let us count to one: absolute condemnation of the fascism of our time, which is Islamic terrorism. And to two: refusal of a political agenda that, in avenging itself on other children for the evils visited upon our own, adds to the pain of the world and redresses nothing.