The picture from Russia grew uglier as the long weekend rolled on. The New York Times headline reported 200 dead in the Saturday edition, and the casualty count continued to climb. Photos of the bloodied, soiled, nearly naked children being evacuated were actually the good news. The horror stories poured out from the freed parents, teachers, and children: of armed Chechen terrorists seizing a middle school in the southwestern Russian province of North Ossetia Wednesday, the first day of the school year. They established their authority by killing a few dozen people and then executed the wounded so as to not have to worry about them. Female would-be suicide bombers, wearing belts made of plastic explosives, posted children at windows to deter snipers. Other children were forced into the hot gym, which was wired with explosives — explosives which rained down death from above — and some may have died of dehydration.
One survivor told the press that the mostly Orthodox children were praying for some intercession, “and those that didn’t know how to pray we taught them.” Outside, concerned citizens who had sustained a two-day vigil had some reason for hope, as a few dozen women and babies were released early Friday, as part of the negotiations. Of course, those hopes were dashed when the explosion led to a fire and the terrorists turned their sights on the fleeing children.
The nation of Russia is in mourning for the next few days. Rightly so. The violent death of one child is a great sadness; hundreds, retching. In light of who the hostages were, President Vladimir Putin had relaxed his theoretically inflexible rule about not negotiating with terrorists, and some reports say that the local authorities at one point thought they had struck a deal to release some imprisoned Chechen militants in exchange for the release of the children and clear passage for their captors. People who were on the ground observed the Russian military seemed caught off guard when the gym blew, which should put the lie to the idea that they attempted to storm the building (as Russian forces did a Moscow theater in October 2002).
When the nation has finished pouring out its tears until it has no more, Russia will decide on a course of action, and that should be something to behold. Though a lot of Chechen spokesmen have denounced the atrocity, one doubts that words of peace will be enough to hold back a bloodied but proud people. To the extent that terrorism has a logic it is this: taunt an occupying force into overreacting — into rounding up some locals, killing others, and generally disrupting their lives, so that the locals will join your struggle and help wear the stronger force down.
The problem is, short of mass murder, it’s tough to think of a military action that would be an overreaction to what just occurred. Chechnya is serving as a conduit for terrorists — homegrown and imported — to enter Russia and commit brutal acts, like the one we have just observed. In the ’90s, the province’s aspirations to self-government drew genuine world concern. Popular General Alexander Lebed was hailed by many for his velvet gloves approach to the region. Pretty soon, it’s brass knuckles time, and the beating is likely to go on indefinitely.