02 September 2004

Beslan: Watching and praying

The terrible drama in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia, is bringing back memories of the events of two and a half years ago in Moscow, when a guerrilla operation linked to Chechen separatists took over a theater and held crew, cast and audience hostage. Latest reports from Beslan say that the number of captives may equal or exceed the Moscow incident, where 1,200 people were held.

Over a hundred of the Moscow hostages died with their captors during the poison-gas rescue operation at the theater. That is one reason the parents and family members of the captives in Beslan are keeping such a frantic vigil at the school. The Russian government's projection of a ruthless determination to exterminate separatists whom they've determined to be terrorists has led to a situation where victims and their sympathizers are caught between two forces representing the most irreconcilable elements of the sides they represent. Eminent persons from the Caucasus republics, and the famous pediatrician Leonid Roshal' now carry the hopes of the desperate relatives; nobody expects creative solutions from the center of power.

In Moscow, far from the scene of the crisis, another mood might prevail. In a poll taken by the liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy as reported by Amnesty International's Moscow office, 64 percent would be willing to back "any action taken by the Russian president" in response to the Beslan crisis; 36 percent would not give such backing.

My heart is in my mouth. What can we do but pray? According to Novosti and lenta.ru, Leonid Roshal' says that nothing is threatening the lives of the hostages for the moment, and that the kids can hold out for eight or nine more days, even without water. Surely that is enough time for the supposedly powerful to be guided to a better balance between centralist machismo and abject surrender. There are rumors that the hostage-takers have been given an offer of safe passage to Chechnya, and an exchange of adults for children. I'm sure there will be many more rumors before this terrible incident is resolved - and many conspiracy theories.

My wildest hope is that this incident will reinforce the increasingly obvious evidence that a campaign of killing enemies is not the way to eliminate the threat of terrorism. Even the conservative former Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky (held in high esteem by many for exposing the use of psychiatry for repression; later involved with the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan) has pointed out the inappropriateness of the "global war" metaphor against terrorism. Here in the U.S., we have the sad spectacle of the Republicans and Democrats falling over each other, each side wanting to appear even more steely-eyed and fixated on victory in this war than the other. "Sensitivity" having already been ruled out as an option, even wisdom seems to be left in the dust. While the leaders and politicians posture inside their security perimeters, ordinary people pay the price of unsustainable policy: separated by language of racial or religious or class hatred ... or united by cynicism ... they remain vulnerable to the acts of terrorists, while their well-being is even more immediately threatened by the ripple effects of massive expenditures on the campaign of killing.

If there was ever a time for evangelism, this is it. The doors of the peaceable kingdom need to be thrown wide open; people should be welcomed with open arms into a way of life that is CENTERED on love, that is led by One who is trustworthy, the Prince of Peace, that puts into perspective all the posturing and dividing and killing that the leaders of this world offer as "solutions" to violence. And evangelical Christians should be at the forefront of coalitions and campaigns to bring scholars and business people (and if we are to take the Old Testament seriously, refugees, too!!) of every nation into every other nation, cheerfully ignoring all political boundaries, totally screwing up the poisonous divisions that lead to the low-intensity warfare of the rich and its reactionary rival, terrorism.

One word-picture haunts me from this unfolding crisis in Beslan. It's from the Guardian:
Mothers screamed at helpless policemen. One was shown on television saying: "How long can this madness in the country continue? When will it end?" Another wailed: "Exchange us for the children. What are our children guilty of?" Another said: "This was my child's first day at school. He was so happy and told me: 'Mum, I will be a good student'. Please, take me, take me, instead."
That boy's happiness at the first day of school is a precious thing, a thing to be cherished and honored ... and now held up in prayer. The hostage-takers have the immediate responsibility for endangering that child, but this boy and his family are also paying the price for a world that seems content to let violence cycle on over and over, preferring to pay these increasingly steep prices when persistence, creativity, courage and love keep asking to be given a chance to work. As the Christian Peacemaker Teams say, it is time for us to get in the way.

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