October 29, 2002

Destroying the Hostages to Save Them?

So when will the invasion begin, now that Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, who not only demonstrably has weapons of mass destruction, including hundreds of the nuclear weapons that are the only ones worthy of the term, has used poison gas on his own people? Or do such criteria not apply to permanent members of the UN Security Council being courted by the Bush administration to support a tough-sounding resolution against Saddam Hussein?

That sounds a little flip, almost frivolous. It is difficult to imagine that the Russian security forces actually intended to kill hostages when they released some kind of incapacitating gas into the Sharikopodshipnik Theater in Moscow – although they might well have calculated that some of them would die in the encounter with the Chechnyan hostage-takers.

But the Russians, at the very least, miscalculated badly and tragically about what the effects of that gas would be on people who were generally dehydrated and had been forced to stay virtually immobile for about 58 hours. Whether they deserve to be invaded or not – the analogy does serve to point up the subjectivity of so much of the case for invading Iraq, which is potentially useful – they deserve to be held to account for incompetence, carelessness or worse.


Whether or not that accounting will ever come, the political effect of the incident will be considerably different than if the rescue operation had been more like a success. If it had been successful, it would undoubtedly have strengthened Russian President Vladimir Putin to continue the campaign against the would-be breakaway province (which resisted being part of Russia during Czarist days) with renewed vigor and brutality. Now much of the anger that would have been directed against the Chechen rebels will be deflected toward the government as well.

What appeared at first to be a well-executed strike against terrorists holding some 800 Moscow theater-goers hostage has been transformed into something different and possibly more tragic. An incapacitating gas, still unidentified, that was pumped into the theater before Russian special forces moved in, seems to have killed 116 of the 118 hostages who died in the rescue effort. And many of the hostages are still in hospitals.

It is just possible to understand how such a tragic series of mistakes might have been made, and it seems unlikely that the Russian security forces would have killed hostages intentionally. But to date Russian officials have dealt with the incident in the manner of Russian officials (communist, pre-communist and post-communist) since time immemorial, with secretiveness and hostility toward the notion that the public has anything resembling a right to know what their wise leaders have been up to. If they want to avoid more serious doubts festering about the competence of the regime they would do well to summon up a good deal more candor than they have yet mustered.


In ordinary circumstances you might expect at least a few putatively democratic representatives of the vaunted "international community" to summon up a bit of concern over the apparent gassing of innocent Russian (and some foreign including perhaps two American) citizens. But the international situation is seriously muddled by the current U.N. Security Council debate over a resolution against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
As those who pay attention to such matters know, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed reservations about such a resolution, and the United States and Great Britain have been courting him. They have little inclination to rile up the Kremlin’s leaders on the eve of a possible vote.

So U.S. and British spokespeople have been very understanding about the Russian government’s actions. In different circumstances they might have been more skeptical or critical.

It also might be the case that the pending U.N. vote on Iraq emboldened the Russian security forces to engage in an inherently risky operation they might have thought through more carefully otherwise. Since 9/11 Putin has taken care to characterize the conflict in Russia – with some justification but with more than a little disingenuousness – as part of the ongoing conflict between civilized countries and nasty Islamist terrorists.

That has essentially silenced whatever elements in the Bush administration might otherwise have been inclined to criticize Russia for the way it is handling a secession movement that is surely more deeply rooted and grounded in history than simply to be viewed as pawns of Osama bin Laden. That feeling – that when it came to Chechnya and its insurgents no violence or brutality or miscalculation was likely to bring on American criticism – could well have gone into the decision to move as quickly as the Russian security forces did.

A case can be made, of course, that the Russian authorities had little choice but to move when they did. The hostage-takers had made threats and actually killed some people. It may be a long time before we have a real idea of all the factors and calculations that went into the decision.


All that having been said, of course, it was apparently an organized band of Chechen terrorists and gunmen who stormed a theater playing a popular musical.

The leader, one Movsar Barayev, was said to be a nephew of Arbi Barayev, a Chechen warlord killed by Russian forces in Chechnya in 2001. Arbi Barayev was known as the "Terminator" because he allegedly killed more than 170 people, including some Brits and a new Zealander, back in 1998 – supposedly in return for funding from bin Laden. So there is a level of ruthlessness and there are connections with foreign terrorists.

The hostage-takers immediately demanded the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Chechnya, and threatened to kill hostages if the demand was not met. They killed at least two hostages and badly wounded two others. The attack came less than an hour before a deadline, when the terrorists said they would kill 10 hostages each hour unless their demands were met.

So the moral responsibility for the bloodshed and death lies mainly with the Chechnyan hostage-takers. This is so independently of the question of whether Russia should have granted Chechnya independence years ago, which is my position (though I have no desire to have that opinion enforced by the U.S. government). Nonetheless, the way the Russian government handled the rescue may deflect attention from the Chechnyan issue.


The Russian security forces had only 58 hours to decide what to do and to come up with a plan. They almost certainly did not have all the resources they would have liked. They acted on the basis of threats from people who had demonstrated themselves to be ruthless.

Even so, they seem to have acted without calculating the full effects of the gas – which might have been a combination improvised at the last minute – and without an antidote available for medical personnel to use on the affected hostages.

There may be mitigating factors here. Some of the people with law enforcement experience I have talked to about the matter emphasize the importance of an agent that acts quickly, before it can be detected by odor, color or taste. Using tear gas or pepper spray might have given the hostage-takers time to blow themselves up, and the hostages with them, or to spray bullets among the hostages, killing many. Still, it seems almost indefensible to use a gas like that without more knowledge of – or forethought given to – what the effects would be on exhausted, dehydrated hostages.

Russian officials will be criticized, with reason. Whether the criticism will develop into something that could affect the course of Russian activity in Chechnya – or even how they might vote on a Security Council resolution – is almost impossible to know just yet.

As difficult as it will be, they need to handle the tragedy with candor and honesty – never a specialty of Russian officialdom under any regime – beginning as soon as possible. Russian officials shy away from candor almost as instinctively as Bush administration officials, believing that sharing information with the mere public is a sign of weakness or giving into populist effrontery. But the Russian officials may soon have an incentive to change their ways, at least a little bit.

– Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the new book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column appears every Tuesday on Antiwar.com.

Archived Columns by Alan Bock

Destroying the Hostages to Save Them?

Bending Posse Comitatus Brings Bad Results

Pipsqueak Adversaries

War For Frivolous Reasons

A Hunger For War Criticism?

Will War Wreck the Economy?

Don't Take the UN Too Seriously

Preventive or Preemptive War?

Weak Arguments for Attack

Bush Cutting Legal Corners: A Wartime Pattern

Choosing Up Sides

Invasion Complications

U.S. Government Behaving Badly

Homeland Security Horrors

Mixed Signals on Iraq?

Iraqi Warmonger Complications

Assessing the War

Bush: Planning int he Whirlwind

Colombia: Mapping a Quagmire

Roots of Discord

The Empire Strikes First

Underlying Problems in South Asia

Creating A New Axis

The Real Failures

US Wades Into More Imperial Outposts

Convening Futility

Financing Venezuelan Mischief

Chalmers Johnson: Changed Cold Warrior

Meeting Robert Fisk

Arrogance of Empire

Middle East Bloodshed: The US Role

The Terrorists Are Winning

Mideast: The Iraqi Connection

Colombia Vote Presages More Instability

The War Comes Home 3/6/02

Consorting With the Axis of Evil 2/27/02

CIA: Avoiding Reform 2/20/02

The Empire Plans Strikes 2/13/02

Military Pork by the Barrel 2/6/02

State of the Union at War 1/31/02

Guantanamo and Geneva: The Missing Questions 1/30/02

Nation-Building or... 1/23/02

Naming the Beast 1/16/02

Strange Versions of Democracy 1/9/02

Making Artificial Distinctions 1/3/02

The Empire Ruminates 12/28/01

Tracking the War 12/19/01

The Road Not Noticed 12/13/01

New Dangers in the Middle East 12/5/01

Afghan Women and the Northern Alliance 11/28/01

Long and Winding Road Toward Peace 11/21/01

Defending Peacetime 11/7/01

Nagging Questions About the War 10/31/01

Collateral Damage 10/24/01

Wartime Resignation or Endorsement – 10/17/01

Building A Peace Movement In Wartime 10/10/01

Flying the Guarded Skies 10/3/01

Anti-Terrorism for the Long Haul 9/26/01 Impressions Amid the Winds of War 9/19/01

The Price of Empire 9/12/01

War on X … When the Metaphor Becomes Too Real 9/5/01

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Middle East Status is Quo 8/22/01

A Macedonian Fantasy – 8/15/01

FBI Taking Wrong International Path 8/8/01

Defining Terms Unilaterally 8/1/01

European Overtures 7/25/01

Further into the Colombian Morass 7/18/01

Taiwan Changes More Important Than US Policy – 7/11/01

More Confusion Than Closure at The Hague 7/4/01

Testing Government Reliability 6/27/01

Making the Subgrand Tour 6/20/01

The State's Dark Underside 6/13/01

Reassuring Nobody – 6/6/01

Multiplying Balkan Confusion 5/30/01

Powell on Mideast: Seduced or Cynical – 5/23/01

International Aspects of Drug Wars Undercovered 5/16/01

China: Getting Chillier 5/2/01

Previous Columns

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