Monday, September 06, 2004


Pandaemonium–-the place of all demons-–is the name John Milton gave to the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost. It is also the title of a 1993 book by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan warning of the dangers of ethnic conflict in the world. Last week, Middle School No. 1 in Beslan experienced pandaemonium. All hell broke loose in the name of ethnic conflict.

It is difficult to respond to such mind-numbing violence or to comprehend the extent of the terror campaign being waged against Russia by Chechen separatists. Consider the events of the past two weeks alone: On August 24, two airliners were destroyed within minutes of each other by bombs believed to have been carried aboard by "black widows," Chechen women whose husbands died fighting against the Russians. Eighty-nine people on the two planes were killed. One week later, a female suicide bomber killed ten people outside a Moscow subway station. Then came the siege in Beslan.

Chechen militants seized 1,100 children and teachers and crowded them into the school’s gymnasium. A number of hostages were shot and thrown out of windows almost immediately, presumably to establish the militants’ resolve. Explosives were strung over the heads of the hostages from a wire linking the basketball goals at opposite ends of the court. Some of the hostage-takers were equipped with explosive belts.

For 52 hours, as the hostages became increasingly desperate from the lack of water and fresh air in the overcrowded gym, there was a standoff between the militants and Russian security forces. Then, when the sound of explosions was heard, the security forces moved in and attempted to rescue hostages even as the militants were trying to kill as many as possible. In the end, over 350 people–roughly half of them children–were killed.

The assault on the school in Beslan was the second attack of its kind by Chechen separatists. In October 2002, the audience in a Moscow theater was held hostage. Russian forces used a gas to disable the hostage-takers, but over 120 of the 700 or so audience members died in the rescue effort.

Mass hostage-taking by suicide bombers--we don't seem to have a word for the tactic--is the Chechen militants’ contribution to the grotesque evolution of terrorist methods. Unfortunately, successful tactics spread (for example, the car bomb, invented in Northern Ireland by Daithi O’Connell in the 1960s, has been used by terrorist organizations all over the world), and what terrorists consider "successful" has a great deal to do with spreading fear.

Vladimir Putin has been widely criticized, both from within Russia and from abroad, for his government's handling of the two hostage crises. It is worth asking how our own government would respond to mass hostage-taking by suicide bombers. Would we refuse to negotiate with terrorists, even if the lives of hundreds of children were at stake?

"None of the above" continually presents itself as the only sane answer when thinking about how we should respond to terrorist attacks such as the one in Beslan last week. This leads some to suggest tighter and tighter security. The lesson of Beslan, however, may be that, once the gloves come off and no one is excluded from potential attack, there will be always vulnerable people and places. Absolute security is impossible to achieve. Consequently, we may need to think more about the roots of our insecurity.