Placing blame: thoughts on the first anniversary of Beslan
Next weekend is the fourth anniversary of 9/11. No doubt many will commemorate that solemn day; whether in ceremonies, private meditation and thought, donations and other acts of remembrance, or by writing about it.
But this past weekend was the first anniversary of a different day of infamy and the deliberate slaughter of the most innocent of innocents, the Beslan school massacre.
It was fairly quiet here on the Beslan anniversary, although Russia itself had an official remembrance. A number of newspapers covered it; here, for example, is a heartrending article from the LA Times about the searing, almost unimaginable grief the families felt--and still feel, a full year later.
As I previously noted, the great graphic artist Kathe Kollwitz, who lost a son and grandson in war (see this article of mine on grieving parents of children), wrote: There is in our lives a wound which will never heal. Nor should it. The same is true, I'm afraid, for the families of the Beslan dead.
The following photo of grieving grandparents at the grave of their grandson killed at Beslan appeared in this Boston Globe article on the Beslan anniversary, reminding me of those Kollwitz statues of grieving parents (see this post for a photo of the Kollwitz statues).
But if you read the Globe AP article carefully, you'll note something very strange. If ever people had earned the right to be called "terrorists" (and much worse), the Beslan perpetrators had fully earned that right. And yet the AP seems, once again, to bend over backwards to avoid the word. Sure, the word "terrorists" appears five times in the article, but most of these are quotes from Putin's speech. He, at least, doesn't pull his punches; he uses the word four times in two sentences.
Mike Eckel, author of the AP article that appeared in the Globe, only uses the word "terrorist" once himself to describe the Beslan attackers. And even then the word is only used in a very general way to say that this is "the anniversary of one of Russia's deadliest terrorist attacks" (by the way, was it not the deadliest terrorist attack in Russia, not just the less dramatic "one of" them?). When action verbs are used, then Eckel and the AP back off and call them "militants" (twice) and "rebels" (once), as in "militants attacked."
The focus of media coverage in general was focused on two elements: the grieving families, and the incompetence and negligence of the Russian authorities. Both, of course, are suitable subject matter; it's the lack of balancing attention paid to the perpetrators, and the inability to call them what they most undoubtedly were, that struck me as odd.
The stories about the grieving families of the dead children could rip your heart out, and rightly so. Here are some excerpts from the previously mentioned LA Times article:
"She never leaves my mind. She's constantly there," Kargiyeva said of Zarina, who had sat beside her for three days as a hostage in the school gym, then died in the explosion while Kargiyeva and her 9-year-old son Alan survived. "The last time I saw her, when I looked at her, she looked so tired, as if she had lost all hope. And her eyes were so, so big. Day and night, that's what I see."...
Women shrieking with despair and raising their hands to the sky had to be helped along by friends and family. "My dear little girl, why did you abandon me?" screamed Marina Pukhayeva, whose 13-year-old died in the siege. "Who killed you? Who tore you to pieces?"...
In a sort of empathic re-enactment, an attempt to endure some approximation of the suffering their dead children had undergone in the long hard days before the shootout, some of the mothers tried to recreate for themselves certain elements of the hostages' fate:
Several mothers had kept vigil for three days and nights in the gymnasium, sitting without food or water, as the hostages had been forced to endure, from the hour when a reported 32 militants calling for Russian withdrawal from Chechnya first captured the school at 9 a.m. on Sept. 1. More than 300 hostages and police died two days later in an explosion and firefight.
As the crowd diminished and the school grew silent in the midnight hours, "We tried to imagine what our children were doing on a night like this," said Zalina Guburova, 42, who lost her 67-year-old mother and her 8-year-old son.
"Of course, we will never feel the pain our relatives and our children felt here, no matter how much time we spent here," she said. "But we decided to try."
I read a selection of articles about the Beslan anniversary from around the globe in preparation for this post. Most of them were in line with the AP article in using euphemisms for the attackers and in focusing very little on the original event (this somewhat murkily-written Pravda article is the one exception I encountered).
I'm not asking that we dwell endlessly on acts such as this. But surely the Beslan massacre was one of the most vicious and coldblooded killings in recent memory, and one in which children were purposely targeted for suffering and death rather than their deaths being caused unintentionally, as collateral damage. Surely it's important to mention those facts.
The truth is that the Beslan killings were murders perpetrated by Chechen terrorists hoping, by committing the vilest of atrocities, to strike fear into the heart of Russians everywhere, and to cause political concessions to be made. But you could read a host of articles on the anniversary without hardly learning a thing about what was behind the Beslan attack, except perhaps that it was perpetrated by Chechen separatists. And even in those rare articles that did go into more detail, there was hardly even a whisper of the fact that Chechnya is a Moslem area, and that the faction of the separatists and militants who become terrorists (as opposed to true militants and separatists only) tend to be Islamicists as well.
There's even more that's interesting about the Beslan articles. It seems as though Russia and the US are not so different after all, these days, in people's tendency to focus on the actions (or inactions) of their own governments. A close reading of this article is fascinating for the parallels it demonstrates: the emphasis on the blaming of the authorities for their failure to protect rather than of the terrorists for the murders themselves, the vociferous demands of the victims' families for a confrontation with Putin, and the callous and opportunistic use the terrorists make of the controversy to score their own propaganda points through the clever manipulation of public opinion to deflect all accusations even further in the direction of the government.
It's mystifying to me why this particular act, so unequivocally evil (yes, I'll use the word), seems sometimes to have been transmuted into just another opportunity to blame the government. As with many things--9/11, the Katrina disaster--there is no doubt plenty of blame to go around, and many errors that were made by the authorities. But these errors are more in the nature of contributory negligence at worst, and inevitable and unavoidable human failings at best.
The true perpetrators here must not be forgotten: cold-blooded and manipulative terrorists who were out to murder the largest possible number of children in the most painful way possible, making them suffer first for several unspeakable days. It's almost as though the truth of Beslan is so horrific that people feel they must close their eyes to it or go mad. It's an example of that tried and true defense mechanism, displacement. How much safer to rage against the imperfect and seemingly impotent governments than at the perfectly malignant and all-too-active terrorists.