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Excerpt from Endgame

Beslan (p. 774)

From chapter "Symbolic and Non-symbolic Actions"

The problem comes, as it so often does, when we confuse or conflate things that should not be confused or conflated, in this case symbolic and non-symbolic actions. This misperception can go either direction. Sometimes people sending messages forget or ignore the fact that their message carries with it huge costs paid by those who to them are nothing more than the medium for their message. Those who run the U.S. military machine may be sending a message to would-be militants when they drop bombs on villages in a display of “shock and awe,” but that message is written in the splattered blood of all those blown to bits, who were prior to their extinguishment beings with lives and purposes all their own. When Harry Truman and the U.S. war machine dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a potent message was delivered to the Soviet Union, but the message was delivered on the charred and sloughing flesh of those dying from radiation poisoning. These messages had their costs, paid by those who had little if anything to do with the message or its primary recipients.

This is not to say that one should only send cost-free messages—this book is written on the pulped flesh of trees, delivered to you through the use of oil, with all of its attendant costs, and I hope the message that is this book ultimately (and proximately) helps forest communities to survive. It’s just to point out the blitheness with which those in power and the servants of those in power (I’m thinking again of the judge who sentenced Jeffrey Leuers) send messages involving costs paid inevitably by those perceived as lower than they on the social hierarchy.

This is yet another variation of premises four and five of this book. Within this culture it is acceptable, often desirable, for those higher on the hierarchy to use the bodies of those lower on the hierarchy to send messages. It follows that the messages of those higher on the hierarchy are, like their property, considered to be worth more than the lives of those below.

This whole situation can get very complicated and messy very quickly. This last week Chechen militants took over a school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan in southern Russia. For fifty-three hours they held more than 1,000 children and adults hostage, and in the end killed about 320 of them. Why did they do this? A former hostage reported that one of the hostage takers said to her, “Russian soldiers are killing our children in Chechnya, so we are here to kill yours.” Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, whom many think planned the takeover of the school, expanded on this: “However many children in that school were held hostage, however many of them will die (and have already died) . . . it is incomparably less than the 42,000 Chechen children of school age who have been killed by Russian invaders.” He continued, “Dead children, dead adults—brutal murder of more than 250,000 Chechen peaceful civilians by the invaders—all of it cries to heaven and demands retribution. And whoever these ‘terrorists’ in Beslan might be, their actions are the result of [Russian leader] Putin’s policies in the Caucasus [and] in response to terrorism and crimes committed by the Kremlin’s camarilla, which is still continuing to kill children, flood the Caucasus with blood and poison the world with its deadly bacilli of Russism.” The website where this was posted then quotes the Bible: “What measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.” Basayev’s got a point, in that this well-publicized atrocity is tiny compared to the routine atrocities committed by Russians in Chechnya that go unmentioned in the world at large (quick: name three massacres in Chechnya by Russians—heck, name three towns in Chechnya). It was noted in many accounts of the massacre that some of the killers were women. What was less often noted are the mass rapes of Chechen women by Russian soldiers. As Dr. Cerwyn Moore, a senior lecturer at England’s Nottingham Trent University who has been studying the emergence of female suicide bombers, said, “There has been widespread use of war rape by contract soldiers. The subject is very delicate and hard to get facts on. But when you have Russian contract soldiers looting and raping—and I believe it’s the accepted norm— you’re going to have things happen later.” And it’s not just rape. It’s murder. Moore noted that about 60 percent of confirmed female suicide bombers had lost husbands, and commented, “When you have a woman who’s lost much of her identity because of her husband and family being killed, it’s easier for her to be recruited.”

I think we can take Basayev and the killers at their word, that this killing was done in retribution for the killing of their own children: you kill ours, we kill yours, fair enough? But I believe it’s also true that the Chechens were trying to send a message which I believe would run something like this: stop killing our children. The next question is: to whom are they trying to send the message? If they’re trying to send it to the people of Beslan, I think they’re trying to send it to the wrong people. I think it’s safe to say that Russia is no more of a democracy than the United States, which means even if the people of Beslan receive the message loud and clear—even if they’re terrorized into not supporting Russia’s occupation of Chechnya—it probably won’t cause the Russian government to withdraw from Chechnya. The people from Beslan almost undoubtedly have no more influence on Russian policy than the people of Crescent City, California have on United States policy.

I’d imagine Basayev and the others are fully aware of this. This makes me suspect that their message was intended not just for the people of Beslan but for Putin and the others who run the Russian government, those who could actually make the decision to withdraw from Chechnya. But there’s a big problem with this logic: it presumes that Putin and others of the Russian elite give a shit about the people of Beslan, an extremely doubtful proposition. Consider the United States: do you think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney care about your life, or the lives of your family? Their rhetoric aside, do you think they honestly care about the lives of American citizens? Do you think they care more for human beings than for corporations, production, personal financial gain, or increasing their personal and political power? If so, how could they possibly promote the use of pesticides? How could they promote the toxification of the total environment, with the consequent deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans each year? If Bush, Cheney, and company cared about human lives, they would help us to prepare for the end of civilization. But they don’t. They don’t care about humans in general. They don’t care about American citizens. They don’t care about this or that small town. If Chechens obliterated the entire town of Crescent City, California, certainly the United States government would use that as an excuse to bump up repression at home and to conquer yet another oil-extracting country, but I can guarantee you George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would feel no pain.

The same holds true for retribution. The point of retribution seems to be: you cause me pain, and I cause you pain so you know how it feels. But I’m guessing Putin feels no pain over the deaths of these children. He undoubtedly feels a bit of a panic as he tries to deal with the public relations nightmare this situation has created. But pain? No.

Putin will almost undoubtedly follow Jefferson’s lead in saying, “In war they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”But I realize now that Jefferson was lying all along, and what he really meant was: “In war they shall kill some of those whose lives we don’t much care about anyway, and the troops we command shall destroy all of them.”

I’m not saying that killing hundreds of children in some small town in southern Russia is a morally acceptable way to send a message to those in power. Nor am I saying it is not understandable that if some group is systematically killing your sons and daughters and husbands and wives and sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and lovers and friends that you may want to lash out at members of that larger group. I am saying that there are much longer levers they could have used. If they were trying to send a message to Putin or others of the Russian elite, it probably would not have been a bad idea to strike closer to their home.

How would this play out differently if instead of killing children in Beslan, the Chechens killed Putin’s children and the children of the others who command Russian soldiers to loot, rape, and kill in Chechnya? What if they skipped the children and went straight after the perpetrators? Would Putin then feel pain? Would that be a more understandable retribution? Would that send a message Putin could understand? Would Putin be so quick to commit more troops to this murderous occupation if he knew that by doing so he was placing his own life and the lives of those nearest to him at risk? Let me put this another way: Do you believe that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney would have been so eager to invade Iraq—oops, to order other people’s sons and daughters to invade Iraq—if they themselves would have been in serious danger of being maimed or killed, and if they knew their children would be the first to die?

Not on your life. Not on theirs either.