Zero Tolerance for Terrorism

New Zealand Herald, December 7, 2002

Denis Dutton

Of the nightmarish video images to come out of the October siege of a Moscow theatre, a few stand out: busloads of unconscious hostages being ferried to hospitals; women terrorists, wired to suicide belts, slumped over the theatre seats, a bullet through the head of each; the awesome pile of plastic explosives collected from the theatre, enough to kill and incinerate the 750 hostages within seconds.

For me, the most poignant image was not the most grisly: a soldier early in the episode carried over his shoulder the dead body of a svelte young woman. She had a dark leather jacket over her pleated black pants. Her arms and her blond hair hung limply down the back of the policemen. She’d panicked, tried to run, and according to the Russians had been shot in the back.

Her spiked heels could not have helped her escape, but few of us plan on having to run for our lives when we go out to a schmaltzy, Saturday-afternoon musical.

This twenty-year-old doubtless resembled some of the Australians girls blown to bits in Bali , the students dismembered in a Tel Aviv university cafeteria, or the young secretaries who jumped to their deaths from the World Trade Center .

Terrorism – the purposeful but indiscriminate killing of civilians as a political-media event – is the great disease of our age. Like bodily diseases, it can tempt us with a range of inane responses. Among these are the “root causes” or “maybe we deserved it” reactions favoured by some media pundits and academics.

For example, in the wake of the Bali bombings, columnist for The Australian, Rosemary Neill, first cleared her throat by saying it would be facile to suggest that tourism and “cultural arrogance” caused the Bali attack – and then went on do exactly that. Western tourists “impose their values (topless sunbathing, easy sex, pub crawls) on poorer, profoundly different cultures.” Tourism has despoiled the “rich, indigenous culture of Bali ,” and made for “a huge waste disposal problem.”

Such guilt-ridden opinionizing, which implies that “we” are somehow to blame for it all, must gratify the Islamofascist murderers of the Asia Pacific region. They are the ones, after all, who are actually out to destroy Balinese culture, not with tourism, but by imposing their oppressive religion, including shar’ia law, on Bali ’s Hindu-derived traditions – as they managed for a time to hold Afghanistan in an iron grip.

Rosemary Neill follows the pattern of many terrorism op-eds. After deploring the carnage, she moves on to a list of pet hates (topless beaches, too much sex and drinking, tourist pollution). Other writers, in such venues as the Guardian or the London Review of Books, have deplored the murders and then blamed it on McDonald’s, capitalism, globalised economy, or even the Bus administration’s opposition to Kyoto . In this they all follow the pattern set by the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who, immediately after the September 11th massacre, agreed it was “probably what we deserve” for having so long encouraged “ abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians.

Every media commentator and letter-to-the-editor writer, left-wing or right-wing, who uses a hostage-taking or bombing as an occasion to explore the “root causes” of the event, which so often turns out to be – surprise – the author’s own political agenda, plays into the hands of murderers: media buzz and hand-wringing is the oxygen on which terror thrives.

The Moscow event, depressing as it was, presents perhaps the best example of how terrorism can be responded to, not only by civil authorities, but by all who would call themselves civilised. The Russians responded with zero tolerance.

First, President Vladimir Putin made it plain that nothing would be negotiated with the terrorists except safe passage back to Chechnya . Second, the hostage taking (which involved killing from the very start), was not to be an occasion for discussing the “issues” is Chechnya . Third, with grim determination, plans were made to end the siege with the least loss of life.

No one familiar with the history of Chechnya from Stalin’s deportation in 1944 to the present can fail to be moved plight of the Chechens. It has even been called, for instance by the liberal commentator Elena Bonner, a history of genocide. But nothing in the long, sad, and complicated story of Chechnya justifies the homicidal designs of the Moscow terrorists.

Zero tolerance for terrorism should apply not only to governments, but to all who are tempted to say, “I deplore this violence, but we must consider how we’ve brought this on ourselves.” Or: “It’s wrong, but the [Palestinians, Chechens, Basques, Kashmiri Muslims, Northern Ireland Catholics fill in the blank] have suffered so much, let’s have a weekend retreat to acknowledge their pain.”

I for one would like to see a free and independent Tibet . But the day Tibetan activists kidnap Chinese diplomats or start blowing up Chinese tourists,I’ll not be calling for sensitivity to the plight of Tibet . The murder of unarmed non-combatants as a media event for political ends must cease – no matter what we think privately of the cause. That is what zero tolerance for terrorism ought to mean.

The most singularly intriguing story to come out of the recent Moscow episode was an account, published by the newspaper Moskovski Komsomol, of the “funeral” arrangements for the terrorists. The Russian security police let it be known that the corpses of the terrorists were eventually to be buried wrapped in pigskin.

Martyrs for jihad believe they ascend without delay to heaven. But according to at least one strain of Islam, being wrapped in the skin of an unclean, porcine beast ruins your chances of getting into heaven for all eternity. If, as it seems to me, the God of Islam is not always kind, in this case at least, he’s just.

Let’s credit the Russians’ black humour. They’ve thrown religious dogma back in the fanatics’ faces. The next suicide bomber might think twice about heavenly aspiration. And for anyone who finds the wrapping of corpses in pigskin sick, nothing competes in depths of sickness with killing ordinary citizens for the sake of TV cameras. Terrorism remains the plague of our age.