Beginning in the mid-1990s under the regime of President Boris Yeltsin and continuing into the early part of the 2000s under Vladimir Putin, Russia fought a so-called “dirty war” against Chechen separatists in a region of the world that military strategists have long considered among the most indomitable. Even in Afghanistan, where many Chechen fighters went to train in Taliban run training camps, they had a reputation for ferocity that frightened many war-hardened Afghans.
As the younger brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is the surviving suspect in the Boston marathon bombings six days ago remained silent and in serious condition in a Boston hospital, and apparently did not issue any public statement about motives, it is impossible to say why – if indeed it was him and his brother – they did it. So what follows is speculation.
We know that older brother Tamerlan – the name of the famous 15th century Central Asian conqueror – visited relatives in Chechnya for about six months in 2012, according to his father, in order to renew his Russian passport. Authorities are currently investigating the possibility that he connected with radical separatist groups during his visit. He posted videos by radical jihadi figures to YouTube when he returned.
Why might a Chechen resent the United States? After all, Russia – not the United States – blasted the capital city of Grozny into smithereens and made countless Chechens vanish into thin air, an act of ethnic cleansing similar to Kosovo. In fact, most Chechen resistance groups focus their rage – and terror attacks – against Moscow and other Russian cities.
Some Chechens charge the United States with a conspiracy of silence with Russia, which they see as an American ally. It is a credible charge. After all, the United States has maintained a close security relationship between the CIA and the successor to the KGB, the FSB, since 1994. That’s why, for example, Tamerlan’s trip to Russia aroused a query from the Russians to their counterparts in the American government.
If you think back to the Carter administration, which made human rights a top priority (albeit inconsistently), there was a time when political dissidents might be able to expect – not in all situations, but often – the US to decry human rights violations such as those that occurred in Chechnya in the late 1990s. Under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, however, US policy was to refuse to comment or to issue low-profile denunciations that escaped the notice of the media. In the same way that so many governments failed to step up and help Jews escape Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, to do nothing (or very little) is to tacitly enable murderers. Silence equals consent.
Now scroll forward to 2013. The United States, which had nothing to say about Russian policy in Chechnya, is engaged in an epic clash of civilizations against Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. (Just yesterday, an American terror drone killed two people in the Obama Administration’s extrajudicial campaign of slaughter of Yemenis.) It’s not a big stretch to imagine the suspects in the Boston marathon bombings thinking that the reason that the United States doesn’t care about what happened to their homeland is that it’s all part of the same policy, that the US and Russia are on the same side, that these two countries are more friends than enemies, Western powers who are trying to destroy Islam.
So why blow up the marathon? If you’re in Boston, you go with the targets that you have. That’s where you live. Why blow up innocents? Because you can’t get at those who were truly responsible, the policymakers in Washington and Moscow. And anyway, you tell yourselves, Americans aren’t really innocent. This is a democracy. We’re responsible for our government. We vote for our leaders. We should rise up and overthrow them if we don’t like them; otherwise, we’re responsible for them. This notion of “collective guilt,” after all, is how the Allies during World War II justified targeting civilians with bombing raids. Osama bin Laden made analogous claims that Americans deserved to be targeted because of their collective guilt.
Ultimately, you wage attacks in order to get attention for a cause that has been ignored. To get the issues you care about discussed and talked about. That’s the purpose of terrorism. Terrorism is the tool of the weak and oppressed against the strong and powerful. It’s asymmetric warfare.
While it will always be impossible to stop terrorism, it’s a fallacy to argue that we can’t reduce its frequency and the likelihood of American targets being attacked again, that we’ll always be targeted no matter what. It just isn’t true. Luxembourg doesn’t have a lot of terrorist bombings. Neither does Belgium – but it would if it still had its big colonial empire. If you don’t invade other countries, if you don’t engage in aggressive foreign policy, if you’re not financing and arming oppressive regimes, you tend not to piss people off.
One could argue that we shouldn’t give in to terrorists by changing our policies. But if our policies are brutal and counterproductive to begin with, it’s a discussion that we should be having.
Right now, to watch the news and watch the so-called experts talk about Boston, it’s pretty clear that they don’t get it. Skirting the issue, they talk about the psychological component, that the two brothers from Chechnya were to some extent alienated from American society. They talk about the success of law enforcement. They talk about privacy and cameras. The Republicans are even talking about this as an excuse not to legalize 11 million illegal immigrants.
But all of these issues are beside the point. The only surprise about Monday’s attack is that such horrific events are so few and far between.