One lesson of the Russian school siege
Terrorism's real targets are our greatest fears.
At the time of writing, Russian special forces have stormed the school where Chechen terrorists took hundreds of children hostage, and the situation is in chaos. As the death toll mounts, many watching the horrific scenes on television will be asking how those Chechen rebels could have committed such an atrocity.
One answer is that they do it because it works. Their aim is to strike terror into an already fearful Russian society. By hitting just about the softest target imaginable – an ordinary school in a small farming town – the terrorists could prey upon the Russian public’s powerful sense that nowhere is safe, and that they are defenceless. The intense feelings of fear and vulnerability in Russia guarantee that, however many of the terrorists have been killed, their gruesome mission has been a success.
These Chechen rebels have more in common with the nihilists of al-Qaeda than with traditional nationalist movements. In the past such groups saw violence as the means to a political end. For today’s groups, by contrast, terrorism is an end in itself. They use terror tactics in order to terrorise people.
Islamic terrorists are often described as ‘mindless’. But in attacking schoolchildren, the Chechens demonstrated an astute grasp of how to touch the rawest nerve of a society already reduced to a nervous wreck.
In the West we are familiar with the culture of fear. Our anxious, insecure societies offer easy targets for terrorists who can prey on our nightmares, often causing consternation simply by issuing vague threats. From government offices downwards, many have become so fearful and cautious that it often seems as if we are doing the terrorists’ work for them. People have become so cynical about the authorities that any attempt to reassure the public seems sure to backfire.
It might be hard to imagine that a major nation could be more mistrustful and on edge than America or Britain. But Russia is. In the post-Soviet era, there is an ongoing crisis of authority in Moscow. Mistrust of government agencies that are seen as corrupt and unrepresentative is not confined to Chechnya; it is almost all-pervasive across Russian society. Few believe that President Putin can or will protect them.
The depth of public fear, mistrust and cynicism helps to explain why, if anything, Russia has been even more traumatised by terrorism than post-11 September America. Since the terrible end of the terrorist siege at a Moscow theatre in 2002, which left more than 100 dead, life in Russia has often appeared haunted. Relatively small attacks by Chechen rebels, such as the female suicide bomber who killed herself and 10 others outside a Moscow station this week, can seemingly paralyse a city. Such is the sense of insecurity that some Muscovites will now cross the road at the sight of a woman wearing a veil.
In a revealing article entitled ‘In my Russia, the terrorists are winning’, a Russian journalist this week described how she felt when she realised that, had she not stayed home from work that day, she would have driven past the site of the latest Moscow suicide bombing. Even before she heard news of the school siege, she had become entirely preoccupied with calculating the threat that terrorism might pose to her children. It provides an instructive insight into the desperate mindset of middle-class Muscovites:
‘We have moved out of the city – good. Vova will be going to school outside the city – also good. But that means a daily drive on the crowded beltway – bad (lots of people, good terrorist target). If we move back to our city place, we’ll hardly have to drive or use public transportation – good. But we’ll be right in the centre of town, where there are lots of crowds and traffic jams – bad. What’s the point? How in the world can one devise an escape when I could simply have been driving home from work today? I can’t keep up.’ (1)
The same note of helpless desperation was evident in much of the Russian press comment after the school was seized. The resigned acceptance that ‘the terrorists are winning’ can only encourage them to commit further outrages.
One other thing seems certain. When the smoke clears over the school after the special forces raid, the Russian government will get much of the blame. Public mistrust of the authorities is such that, even when Putin tries to take decisive action against terrorists, he is heavily criticised. It is unclear exactly how else the Russians were supposed to deal with apparent suicide bombers holding hundreds of children hostage. But the anti-government reactions will have little to do with the specifics of the school siege, or of Putin’s policy towards Chechnya. They are more a reflection of the Russian public’s general mood of cynicism and fear – a mood that is music to terrorist ears.
In the West, many have watched this week’s reports from Russia in uncomprehending horror. But there are important lessons for us in all of this, too. We often hear official and unofficial warnings about how terrorists could be planning to attack nuclear installations, government buildings or other strategic targets in Western capitals. Yet the Russian school siege should remind us that the terrorists’ main target is always our fears. What they aim to strike above all is terror into our hearts. And we in the West have done more than the Russians to educate any would-be terrorist that our greatest fears now centre on our children. Our paranoid expressions of concern about child safety in everyday life send out a powerful signal to anybody looking for an easy way to traumatise our society.
If you doubt it, cast your mind back to the Washington sniper killings of 2002. After the snipers began randomly shooting people in the Washington area, a police chief issued a statement designed to reassure residents that ‘Our schools are safe. Our children are safe at this point’. At that point, no child had been shot at and there had been no suggestion that the snipers would target schools. But once the police chief’s statement had alerted them how best to terrorise the city, the snipers changed tack. They shot a 13-year-old boy outside a school and then issued a statement of their own: ‘Your children are not safe anywhere, at any time.’ The resulting panic brought America’s capital to a virtual standstill. It did not require 40 suicide bombers seizing a school to turn the Washington public’s fears for their children into a powerful weapon.
As we recoil in horror from what has been happening in Russia, let us try to remember that the corrosive culture of fear poses the greatest threat to our own and our children’s future in a free society.
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