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> Columns > Boston Globe > Russia's vulnerability to terrorism

Russia's vulnerability to terrorism

By Cathy Young | November 4, 2002

THIS TIME, the terror came to Moscow, the city of my birth - just as, a little over a year ago, it came to New York, the city that was my first home in my adopted country. The two-day hostage crisis that began when about 50 men and women armed with guns and explosives took over a theater during the performance of a hit musical must have been as terrifying to Russians as the Sept. 11 attacks were to Americans. When it was over, at least 118 of the more than 750 hostages were dead (including one American), along with 41 of their captors.

What does this tragedy tell us about the state of the world today?

For one, it tells us some important things about Russia under Vladimir Putin and the extent to which it has and has not changed since the fall of the Soviet regime. The Russian government's foot-dragging on identifying the gas that was used to incapacitate the terrorists - and caused all but two of the hostage deaths - was reminiscent of the bad old days when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster was shrouded in secrecy.

The gassing may well have been necessary to keep the hostage-takers from detonating the explosives. Yet the appalling inefficiency in providing emergency medical aid suggests that profound disregard for human life remains endemic to the mindset of Russian authorities.

A good-faith investigation of the operation seems unlikely, and it appears that there is little public demand for one: Polls show that over 80 percent of Russians support the government's actions.

At the same time, in the new Russia, President Putin went on television and asked the nation's forgiveness for the failure to save all the hostages - something that would have been unthinkable once. Some of the Russian press, and the victims' relatives, have been sharply critical of the handling of the crisis.

It is noteworthy, too, that government leaders and the media have warned against reprisals targeting innocent Chechens - even though there have been reports of police abuses singling out Chechens in Moscow. The Western-style rhetoric may be ahead of the reality; but perhaps the rhetoric is a start, not just a facade.

While analyzing the old and the new in Russia may be fascinating, a far more urgent issue is what these latest events tell us about terrorism and our war against it.

In our global village, the hostage crisis in Russia doesn't feel distant. Copycat acts of terror are all too imaginable. If it happened in Moscow, it could happen again on Broadway.

Ever since Sept. 11, which signaled a new warming in Russian-American relations, Putin has portrayed the conflict in Chechnya as part of the same war on terrorism in which the United States has been engaged and the Chechen rebels as part of the same global radical Islamic terror network that carried out the attack on America. The Bush administration has been receptive to this argument. On the other hand, many critics have accused Putin of using the war on terrorism as a convenient pretext to enlist Western support for Russia's war.

The critics point out that unlike the Sept. 11 hijackers, the Chechen rebels are fighting to free their land from foreign occupation by a power guilty of brutal human rights abuses. True enough. Their situation differs not only from that of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda but also from that of the Palestinians. Russia has been far less willing than Israel to seek political solutions to the dispute; the Russian Army, unlike the Israel defense forces, has by all accounts engaged in systematic, deliberate, widespread violence against civilians. (All this, incidentally, without incurring anything like the international condemnation that has targeted Israel. Imagine the mass demonstrations we'd be seeing in Europe right now if Israeli commandos had killed already unconscious terrorists with execution-style shots to the head, as Russian special forces apparently did.)

The differences are real. But the truth is that in these past few days, they have been overshadowed by the similarities. A group of people whose only crime is going about their everyday lives - traveling by airplane, going to work, going to the theater - have been wantonly murdered or taken captive and threatened with death.

People who carry out such acts are not ''guerrillas,'' as some news reports have termed them; they are terrorists, pure and simple, and to discuss their grievances in a way that seems even partly to legitimize their deeds is a dangerous precedent.

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