Captive to the script

October 29, 2002

THE WHOLE unhappy episode in Moscow involving Chechens and hostages and knockout gas and the bodies of 116 innocent people was so dispiriting in part because it seemed each side was fatally playing the role long ago assigned to it.

First, Chechen gunmen (and gunwomen, in this case) launch a brazen and intolerable attack, one that fully justifies a strong Russian response. But then that response, when it comes, is outrageously violent and indiscriminate, and most of those who suffer from it are completely blameless. In the aftermath, the Russian leadership goes into lies-and-confusion mode.

That's been the story of the war since it began. In fact, it was the story of the war when it began. And it's not likely to be a story that we've heard the last of.

Outsiders are left to try to figure out what part of this is separatist rebellion and what part international terrorism, and how to weigh the behavior of the Russian armed forces -- who have engaged in gross human-rights violations and unconscionable blundering, yet must defend their nation against an astonishingly cruel and wily foe.

Bluntly, as always, the Russians accomplished this much on Saturday:

They kept the theater from being blown up, they saved the lives of perhaps 600 people, and they made it clear they weren't going to buckle in the face of terrorism.

And this was the cost:

At least 116 people were killed by their own side, the Chechen terrorists have now been challenged (unfortunately) to try to come up with some attack even more audacious, and the failure of the often corrupt security services to prevent the arrival of so many gunmen and guns and explosives in the heart of Moscow was evident to all.

The Kremlin has declared victory and cracked down on the press. For 48 hours, no one in the military was willing to tell the doctors tending to the sickened and in some cases dying hostages what kind of gas had been used to subdue those inside. Finally, yesterday, the government identified the mystery chemical as an opiate related to morphine -- but it was the U.S. government, not the Russian.

Now President Vladimir Putin promises to get tough on Chechnya. It will further embitter his enemies. As to what will follow, please refer to the second paragraph of this editorial.

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