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Thoughts on Chechnya


What to think about Chechnya and Beslan? Having a blog gives me the opportunity to ruminate at length. . .

The Chechen situation provokes some difficult questions about terrorism. Various Russian states have “terrorized” Chechnya since the 19th century. In World War II, Stalin deported more or less the entire population of Chechnya to Siberia. Solzhenitsyn wrote movingly of the Chechen experience in the Gulag Archipelago, arguing that they were among the few peoples not to be broken by the experience. An entire generation of Chechens spent their formative years in Soviet labor camps. Some details at GlobalIssues.org.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, the Chechens declared independence. The first Chechen War, from 1994-1996, killed about 80000 Chechens and destroyed Grozny, but resulted in a Russian withdrawal. In 1999, Chechen militants began attacking neighboring Russian regions, sparking another invasion which destroyed Grozny once again. Since 2001, the Russians have argued that the conflict with Chechnya is an integral part of the “War on Terror”.

The Chechens have employed terrorism as a tactic, both in 1996 and in the most recent war. In 1996, Chechen efforts were largely successful, as a series of hostage taking episodes demonstrated the inability of the Yeltsin government to exert internal control. In 1999, Chechen methods became considerably more brutal, and included attacks on Moscow apartment buildings, as well as other targets. These attacks quickly turned Russian public opinion against the Chechens, and made Putin’s war against them extremely popular.

The most recent, and most horrific, attack came a few weeks ago at Beslan. It resulted in the deaths of several hundred, including a large number of children. As noted previously on this site, this event has given Putin an excuse to destroy what’s left of Russian democracy.

So, why all this introduction? Chechnya is interesting because it lets us talk about terrorism and context in an intellectual atmosphere considerably less rancorous than that of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Some reactions from American warbloggers have been predictable. Bird Dog gives a typically shallow analysis which is heavily dependent on that of Dan Darling. According to Darling, the only problem here is that the Russians were too weak; they retreated in 1996, which allowed Chechnya to become a haven for Islamofascists. Maybe destroying a few more cities and killing a couple hundred thousand would have solved the problem. However, David Adesnik and Richard Pipes, apparently not as terrified of nuance, (it really kills the fighting spirit, I guess) note that the Chechens have some legitimate grievances, and that the Russians should maybe take them seriously. Pipes, believe it or not, is capable of detecting difference between terrorist organizations, which is evidently not an inheritable characteristic.

So, what is terrorism, what is it good for, and when is it justified? More specifically, how do those crazy conservatives think about terrorism? Any definition that lists the Chechen actions as terrorism and not the Russian is clearly insufficient. It would appear, nonetheless, that Bird Dog et al hold to such a definition; why the murder of 80000 is fine and the murder of 2000 ain’t isn’t terribly clear to me. I would think that terror must involve the destruction of life or property with the purpose of frightening the greater populace into taking or refraining from some course of action. Ownership of a state presumably does not convey a license to kill, so states are not excepted from terrorism. I think that most conservatives would have to agree with the bulk of this, otherwise their condemnations of murderous Marxist states would fall flat. What is it good for? If terror is a tactic, and people use terrorism all the time, then presumably it must be good for something. Here, it looks as if states really get the long end of the stick; they can kill and terrorize LOTS of people, which NGOs and rebel organizations simply can’t. The Chechen history of terrorism has been checkered; it got the attention of the Russian state, but also managed to turn the Russian population decisively against Chechen independence. I suspect, in spite of its common usage, that terrorism really isn’t a very effective “weapon of the weak”.

Last but not least, under what circumstances is a resort to terrorism justified? This question is too hard to answer, so let’s narrow it down a bit and ask “under what circumstances might conservatives/warbloggers believe that terrorism is justified?” Given that most conservatives were quite supportive of the Contras in Nicaragua, and of just about any group that purports to oppose Castro, the answer has to be “sometimes”. But that begs the question: The Chechens and the Contras are/were both fighting semi-authoritarian governments, why support one and not the other? Moreover, most warblogger conservatives have counselled an extremely assertive course of reaction to terrorists, which has included policies that produce accidental and not-so-accidental civilian deaths, and which has involved becoming cozy with various different authoritarian governments.

In the end, I’m forced to conclude that the conservative position on this question doesn’t move past the old “terrorist or freedom fighter” dichotomy. People fighting governments we like are terrorists, while people fighting governments we don’t are terrorists. Warbloggers can see so far because they have stood upon Carl Schmitt’s shoulders.

Matt Duss has more.

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