By Janet Daley, October 31, 2002
While the number of dead hostages was climbing on Monday, a Moscow
newspaper had a headline that read: “At last, we have something to be proud
of”. Was it right? On balance, I think, yes.
The consequences of the ending of the Russian theatre siege may have been
appalling, but there was never going to be any ending that was not. The
decision to use an anaesthetising gas must have seemed like a good idea at the
time. Put everybody to sleep and then go in and shoot the terrorists.
It did not seem to occur to the military authorities, or whoever made the tactical
decisions, that a general anaesthetic, even on an operating table, is a delicate
matter that requires specialised training to administer and careful preparation of
the patient if it is to be safe. But it was, after all, a plausible technique for
breaking an intractable situation.
How is any country to deal with this scale of terrorism? Well, I say “any
country”. In truth, it is the democratic countries that are in real trouble.
Totalitarian societies have never had a problem dealing with threats to their
stability, whether they are overtly violent or quietly insidious. The state just
wipes them out. No questions, no qualms, no ambivalence. Suicidal attacks on
the population are scarcely an issue, because any violence against the
authorities immediately (or pretty quickly) becomes suicidal.
For us, it is all much more difficult. We have incorporated the freedom to
dissent into our conception of a legally constituted state. Government itself
exists to protect freedom and the basic standards of justice. To pursue and
extinguish subversive forces without due process of law would seem to
undermine our most basic principles of government.
So what do we do? What should the British Government do if a group of
hijackers, declaring themselves eager to embrace death and martyrdom, seize a
London theatre audience? Start talking to them, I hear you suggest. Yes, but
what about? Well, you ask them what they want and begin a dialogue.
But suppose they say that what they want is an end to the domination of the
world by the evil, idolatrous Western countries – which is pretty much what
Osama bin Laden’s team wants. Where will your negotiations go from there? Do
you promise to consider it?
Even when the immediate goals of the Islamic fundamentalist hijackers
and kidnappers are more limited, they have an apocalyptic, absolutist quality
that makes them (perhaps deliberately) non-negotiable.
In the Moscow theatre siege, the terrorists were demanding that Russia
withdraw from Chechnya – or else. Quite apart from the political merits of the
argument for Chechen independence, what could possibly have been the
realistic expectation of the perpetrators? Were they proposing to hold the
theatre until the Russian army had withdrawn?
Presumably they did not envisage any rational series of steps whereby
their requirements could be fulfilled and their position within the political debate
They were simply demonstrating, with a cosmically theatrical gesture, the
desperate lengths to which they were prepared to go for their cause. They had
no intention of accomplishing some intermediate reasonable goal in their
campaign, or even of being taken alive. They went there, they said, to die in
the most spectacular way possible, taking as many members of the public with
them as they could.
If there was any logic to their three-day vigil (and it was not just some
delusional hysteria) it was intended presumably to persuade the Russian people
that they should cut their losses in Chechnya. (As is the way with human
nature, it has had quite the opposite effect.)
This latest species of terrorism is in another league even from the last worst
category – air hijacking, which was, you may remember, very fashionable at one
time. That tended to involve demands for named terrorist prisoners to be
released and/or that the hijackers be given safe passage to the destination of
their choosing. There was something at least recognisably rational to negotiate about.
But once it became clear that negotiation was making hijacking the political
stunt of choice for unstable, reckless adventurists, the game had to be stopped.
Western countries started storming hijacked planes and overlooking the need to
put hijackers on trial before executing them. There were very few airliners taken
hostage after that.
But all of that happened before the advent of this new wave of consciously
suicidal terror activity. It is a peculiarly wicked and (at least in modern times)
unprecedented manipulation of the human psyche that produces so many
young people who are not simply prepared to risk death, but who actively seek
it. It puts democratic governments to a test that shortcircuits all their logical
assumptions. If life itself is not worth having, then all political discussion is fruitless.
That is why this kind of terrorism must not be dignified with political
consideration. Whatever proper arguments are to be had about Russia’s war in
Chechnya or America’s role in the Middle East, they are not, and cannot,
encompass this form of “protest”. The killing of innocent civilians is not part of
Murder is not a political argument. There can be only one answer to people who
say, “Give us what we want or we will kill anybody who is unlucky enough to
fall into our hands.” What should governments do when faced with this?
Absolutely anything that it takes, even if it means (God forgive me) losing some
innocent lives in the process.
In any but the shortest possible term, the ending of such incidents with all the
force that is required is the only way that a free society can defend itself
against this threat. Terrorism must end in disaster for the perpetrators. It must
not only be futile; it must be counter-productive.
Do the processes of justice sometimes have to be forgone in order to protect
life and the freedom to live it?
Yes – undoubtedly, yes.