Events of the last few weeks should have put to rest any naive belief that anyone, anywhere is somehow safe from the dangers posed by terrorism. The cowardly bombing of a Bali nightclub and the hostage-taking in a Moscow theater last week are only the most recent attacks by terrorist groups with a taste for blood.
The brazen attack in Russia is especially galling for President Vladimir Putin, who has built his political career on the image of being a strong man capable of bringing law and order to his country. Yet muscle will not solve this problem. Russia must pursue two tracks — as must all governments that hope to defeat terrorism. Moscow must go after the criminals who take innocent lives, while working with politicians to eliminate the grievances that breed terrorists.
The most recent outrage began when 50 Chechen rebels took over a Moscow theater, taking more than 800 people hostage. The group demanded an end to Russia’s military campaign in Chechnya, a bloody affair that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers. All those deaths occurred in the Chechen Republic; last week’s attack was the first that brought the campaign home to Russian itself. (In 1999, terrorists were blamed for apartment-building bombings in Moscow that claimed more than 300 lives; it is still unclear today whether the Chechens were in fact responsible for those attacks.)
While Mr. Putin has vowed to make no concessions to terrorists, the impulse to mount a rescue operation was tempered by the hostages, and by reports that the building had been booby trapped and that several of the terrorists were suicide bombers, wired to explode. The record of Russia’s elite forces is not inspiring: They have bungled previous rescue attempts.
Russia was compelled to take action when the terrorists announced that they would begin killing hostages. At least two people were killed before the assault began. Apparently, the Russians first pumped a gas into the building that put the terrorists and their hostages to sleep. The special forces then moved in. Information is still incomplete but all the captors — 50 Chechens, among them 18 women — and at least 90 hostages were killed. Reports said 750 people were freed. But 17 more people died later from the effects of the gas that was used to free them.
The hostage-taking is a direct challenge to Mr. Putin. It puts the lie to his claim that the war in Chechnya is being won. But it is not likely to get the Russian president to change course. Mr Putin has positioned himself firmly alongside U.S. President George W. Bush in the fight against terrorism. He has long blamed international groups for supporting the Chechen rebels. Sure enough, Russian security officials claimed the hostage-takers were linked to foreign embassies.
Mr. Putin declared that Russia “cannot be forced to its knees.” The outrageous act in the heart of Moscow is sure to harden Russian public opinion against the rebels. The leaders of Chechen independence movements — including Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in 1997 but is not recognized by Moscow — also condemned the attacks, but warned that worse was yet to come, hinting that nuclear power stations might be next.
The taking of innocent lives must be condemned. But it is also clear that the situation in the Chechen Republic cannot be solved militarily. A political solution is necessary. That does not mean negotiating with criminals, nor does that mean conceding that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” It does mean recognizing that more firepower is not the answer. Moscow’s conduct of the war since 1994 has claimed thousands of civilian lives in Chechnya and increased the pool of terrorists and their supporters. It has hardened hearts and made many Chechens eager to bring their fight to Russia itself.
There are legitimate political authorities in the Chechen Republic with whom the Russians could negotiate; Mr. Maskhadov is the obvious partner. Mr. Putin may not want to deal with him, but the alternative to stubborn silence is escalating terrorism and more deaths. Worse, there is the rising probability that a brutal Russian campaign will eliminate the moderates with whom Moscow must deal, leaving only hardliners and their terrorist supporters. That is a situation even worse than that which Mr. Putin faces today, but it is one that he must contemplate while planning his next move.
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