Ken MacLeod's comments.
The title comes from two quotes:
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray.
“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”—Graydon Saunders
I've been away for a bit, and I don't expect to do much blogging in the next couple of months. I'm working on a new SF novel, provisionally titled Learning the World, and the deadline looms. After I finish it I intend to plunge straight into the next, because I already have the notes for it that I usually spend a few months scraping together.
On holiday I read Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable and Steve Jones's Almost Like a Whale, both well worth reading. The latter made me want to re-read the book on which it's modelled, The Origin of Species. I read the 6th edition when I was at university, and it's about time I read the first. It'll have to wait its turn on the stack, though.
What incited me to read the Dawkins book was having, a couple of weeks ago, read his essay collection A Devil's Chaplain, where he says:
It is time for people of intellect, as opposed to people of faith, to stand up and say 'Enough!' Let our tribute to the September dead be a new resolve: to respect people for what they individually think, rather than respect groups for what they were collectively brought up to believe.
Beslan must be the last straw for anyone and everyone who abhors terrorism and its consequences, including those who still might have felt even after 9/11, Madrid, the beheadings and hostage-takings that these acts were somehow justified or at least the consequences of injustice meted out against the terrorists and their 'cause' or the 'people' they 'represent'.
Beslan must be the last straw because I guess when it comes to children, it is easier to see the truth and go beyond constructed divisions of nationality, religion, occupation, gender or race and to stand up for human beings pure and simple.
I think that is why Beslan will be the watershed in the fight against Islamic terrorism. For one thing, it has made crystal clear that there can be no justification for it. Not even Russian state terrorism. Not even the occupation of Palestine; not even the war on Iraq or every war fought in this century and the last. None of it can justify the thirst, the fear, the pain, the terror, the trauma and the death of even one child in Beslan.
Secondly, it has shown that these justifications have nothing to do with defending just causes and people. Just like the war on Iraq cannot be justified by claiming it is 'bringing democracy and freedom' to the people there; so too Islamists cannot justify their barbarism by claiming it is for the 'liberation of Chechnya or Iraq' or some other seemingly worthy cause. Beslan has shown that both sides lie and deceive in order to justify their terrorisms. Both have shown they have absolutely no regard for human life. And that in fact they are antithetical to life itself.
People in the west have seen through USA-led state terrorism a lot quicker though. Look at the opposition against the war on Iraq. But Islamic terrorism has often been let off the hook because of post-colonial guilt, western citizens' false perceptions that they are accountable for the actions of 'their governments', and the whole notion of cultural relativism which allows bogus abuse-excuse justifications and doesn't hold the masked suicide bomber and hejab-wearing terrorist carrying a Koran up to same universal standards and norms of the 21st century.
Well I object!
And you out there - you decent human beings who are outraged by Beslan and will never ever be the same after seeing those pictures of mangled and terrorised children. You must object as well.
Each and every one of us must object every time they strike. Not only the people of Madrid, Beslan or New York. But all of us.
Next time, upon hearing of another terrorist atrocity, we must leave our workplaces, our homes, our shopping queues, our schools and universities and head for the main city square in every city. I will go to Trafalgar square next time. If you live in New York, go to Times Square; if you live in Berlin, go to Alexanderplatz; if you live in Venice, go to St. Marco Square. Go with banners or pieces of paper saying 'I object to terrorism!' If you don't have pieces of paper or placards, write these words on your hands and on your faces.
The USA, UK, Russian states that are themselves one pole of international terrorism in the world today cannot represent the people of the west or fight terrorism for them just as Islamic terrorism cannot represent or fight for the people of the Middle East and Chechnya.
From those wonderful people who gave you Afghanistan
John Laughland is a conservative and controversial journalist, so I looked on this story with some scepticism:
[I]n the US, the leading group which pleads the Chechen cause is the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC). The list of the self-styled "distinguished Americans" who are its members is a rollcall of the most prominent neoconservatives who so enthusastically support the "war on terror".
They include Richard Perle, the notorious Pentagon adviser; Elliott Abrams of Iran-Contra fame; Kenneth Adelman, the former US ambassador to the UN who egged on the invasion of Iraq by predicting it would be "a cakewalk"; Midge Decter, biographer of Donald Rumsfeld and a director of the rightwing Heritage Foundation; Frank Gaffney of the militarist Centre for Security Policy; Bruce Jackson, former US military intelligence officer and one-time vice-president of Lockheed Martin, now president of the US Committee on Nato; Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, a former admirer of Italian fascism and now a leading proponent of regime change in Iran; and R James Woolsey, the former CIA director who is one of the leading cheerleaders behind George Bush's plans to re-model the Muslim world along pro-US lines.
The ACPC heavily promotes the idea that the Chechen rebellion shows the undemocratic nature of Putin's Russia, and cultivates support for the Chechen cause by emphasising the seriousness of human rights violations in the tiny Caucasian republic. It compares the Chechen crisis to those other fashionable "Muslim" causes, Bosnia and Kosovo - implying that only international intervention in the Caucasus can stabilise the situation there. In August, the ACPC welcomed the award of political asylum in the US, and a US-government funded grant, to Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister in the opposition Chechen government, and a man Moscow describes as a terrorist. Coming from both political parties, the ACPC members represent the backbone of the US foreign policy establishment, and their views are indeed those of the US administration.
If anything, Laughland understates the case. The ACPC's membership list is indeed a roll-call, and not just of neocons. And to chair an organization devoted to the peaceful resolution of a conflict between Russia and Chechnya, who better to pick than Zbigniew Brzezinski and Alexander Haig?
Brzezinski, in particular, must really inspire trust in the Kremlin.
Brendan O'Neill reminds us of, inter alia, Afghan-Chechen links which, in a quite remarkable article on the ACPC site, we are assured do not exist, except in minor and inconsequential ways such as military training and $200 000 dollars.
'Finally, it is 1st September, and the first day of studies ... For the past week ... [p]arents and children ... have been crowding the shops for exercise books and satchels. [...] This is a day you cannot fail to notice. The street is crowded with children in school uniform. [...] Each child is preceded and partially obscured by the bunch of flowers that will be given to the teachers.'
This is not the opening of an article on the Beslan massacre, though it could be, in every detail. It's from a 1985 BBC book based on a BBC television series on everyday life in the Soviet Union. That celebration of the first day of the school year was a surviving ceremony of the civilization that thirteen years ago was swept away. That custom tells us, in a sense, all we need to know about the Soviet Union. (And yes, I know the rest.) This was a civilization that with all its callouses, scar tissue and war wounds, with all its congenital deformities, with all its inherited savageries, had Enlightenment inscribed in its genes.
A very interesting discussion has erupted in the comments to this post, which deserves to be disinterred from Lenin's Tomb. I've strung together the following from the successive comments of a passionate Chechen nationalist:
As a Chechen nationalist and supporter of [Chechen President] Aslan Maskhadov, with all the passionate support I have given to legitimate (obviously the three atrocities in Russia last week are not legitimate) armed resistance against Federal and pro-Moscow Chechen military and police (the "police" in Russia have their own tank and artillery divisions btw), I'm beginning to think that continuation of the armed struggle, coupled with the global war on terror and the total lack of international support (bar the "Brothers of Jihad") for Chechen independence (and the Jihadis aren't, strictly speaking, fighting for a sovereign, Chechen State), will just lead to, in effect, national suicide for the Chechens as an ethnic group.
If things keep going same old for even 5 more years, we'll have had 15 years of almost continual warfare in Chechnya. 15 years!
That's a whole generation growing up knowing nothing but war. Little kids and teenagers in Chechnya today can tell you all about different types of attack helicopters, armoured personal carriers, tanks, grenades, how to strip an AK...but just don't ask them to write it down on a piece of paper, they'll probably have trouble writing. In 1989, our national literacy rate was 95-98% ... I don't even want to know what it is today.
So, to recap, if the war goes same old for the next five years, add in all of the above also factor in future civilian casualties (based on current figures), a seriously decimated medical sector (tuberculosis now affects something like one in ten Chechens...in 1989 there was zero occurrence of TB), unbelievable environmental degradation (a combined legacy of Soviet era pollution and the war damage done to the oil refineries, pipelines and industrial plants...the incidences of cancer and birth defects are also shocking) and a fragmented resistance (Basaev can't even control all the people who profess allegiance to him)...voila Chechens = Arawaks (aboriginals of the Caribbean...Europeans decimated every last man, woman and child through that old combination of flu, overwork, starvation, shooting and chopping).
Just to add. You know one thing a hell of a lot of Chechens (whether pro-Russian or nationalist like me ... even the odd Wahabbite would you believe!) agree on, is that the Soviet Union from Khrushchev until 1989 was actually the time when Chechens (to quote Macmillan?)..."never had it so good."
Of course, no Chechen would look back to Stalin's rule with any nostalgia...the 1944 Deportations ensure that...but the bit after Stalin was a bit of a "socialist paradise" for us.
"Fuck 2004 give me 1984!" - graffiti written on the side of one of Grozny's few standing walls (I got this from a photograph taken by a Chechen journalist in February of this year).
I'd also argue that like in Yugoslavia, the USSR also produced a genuine sense of Soviet pan-national pride (it wasn't all based on fear). Look, the open racism towards people of Caucasian and Central Asian nationality within present-day Russia was fairly negligible (at least not so open, violent and wide-spread) during Soviet days. Many of the Chechen Rebel leadership had gained their first fighting experience during the Red Army's campaign in Afghanistan...where they served the Soviet State out of genuine loyalty...not coercion.
Now, picture 1984, you're in the Red Army Base at Bagram. What do you see? Chechens, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Ossetians, Ingush, Tajik, Turkmen etc serving side-by-side in Afghanistan (admittedly in an unjust war...though I'm not arguing about the rights and wrongs of that bullshit war), breaking bread together, sharing a glass of vodka, passing round a nice, fat joint of sweet Afghan Gold after taking on the Dushmani (Red Army slang for the Afghan Mujis). That scenario, seen through today's former Soviet Union, is almost unimaginable.
Okay, I'm not trying to make the post-Stalin Soviet Union look like some "Arcadia" but it bloody well was in terms of inter-ethnic relations as compared to the present.
As one grieving relative in Beslan said this weekend, 'Things like this simply did not happen in the Soviet Union.' Nobody could have imagined in 1989 or 1991 that children in what was then the Soviet Union would one day be reduced to eating the flowers they had brought, one bright September morning, to give their teachers.
The Beslan massacre is Russia's 9/11. It is Islamism's Abu Ghraib. It is the moment when the cause becomes filth. Images of abused naked children will now always be associated with it. It has already been denounced across the Middle East in unprecedented terms.
The atrocity doesn't subtract one iota from the justice of the demand for an end to the long catalogue of horrors Russia has inflicted on the Chechens. It does make any progress towards that end far harder. The Chechens might seem to have already suffered everything that Russia might inflict. They haven't.
The BBC's live coverage seemed intent on finding evidence of anger against the Russian authorities in Beslan. This anger exists, but I don't think it's that particular anger that will find its expression in the weeks and months to come, and I don't think the emphasis on it is particularly helpful.
What happened at Beslan was not just Russia's 9/11. For Ossetia, it was a massacre of the kind that is permanently burned into a nation's memory, like Lidice and Deir Yassin. And Ossetia is the last place in the world where you want that to happen. The Caucasus is where the next world war could begin.
Yesterday's Mail on Sunday (not online) carries an article by Mark Almond, Lecturer in Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford, who wrote presciently about the Caucasian tinderbox last month. Almond notes that 'old Trotskyists' and 'old Cold War warriors' and neocons are among Chechen separatism's Western supporters, and claims that Western tolerance of Chechen separatist websites and exiles doesn't go down well with the Russians. Nor does the habit of former Soviet states such as Latvia to name streets after Chechen rebels, as well as after their own local SS men. The Russians don't see themselves as the imperialists. They see themselves as the targets of imperialism.
Vladimir Putin's speech included a heavy hint that he shares this view:
We showed weakness, and the weak are trampled upon. Some want to cut off a juicy morsel from us while others are helping them.
They are helping because they believe that, as one of the world's major nuclear powers, Russia is still posing a threat to someone, and therefore this threat must be removed.
Others are quite explicit about who this 'they' and 'someone' are:
The situation in North Ossetia needs to be viewed in the context of the growing battle for control of the Transcaucasus between Russia and the Anglo-Saxon powers... The Anglo-Saxons need to squeeze Russia out of the Transcaucasus, and to do that they need to destabilise the situation in the North Caucasus and in Russia in general.
Mikhail Alexandrov in Defence Ministry daily Krasnaya Zvezda
Putin's speech should be taken as a serious warning.
Here's a poem I wrote on the date indicated, when I went into Edinburgh and around 2 p.m. our time felt the eerie silence of the sky and the streets, like hearing the birds stop singing during a solar eclipse:
After Burns: 11 September 2002
An empty threat can empty skies:
no contrail-crayon crosses
that pale blue dome. But come on, guys!
We can do better. Losses
are not made less but multiplied
and fear's increased by flinches.
We but dishonour those who died
in dying ourselves by inches.
When in the daylight laws are made
in halls that all may enter,
there's light at night, a world of trade,
a world where Man's the centre.
There is no God, and we must get
our comfort where we find it:
in the rising yell of a laden jet
and a bright contrail behind it.
[I've deleted a verse that doesn't belong here - KMM 6/9/04]
Antonia Bird's The Hamburg Cell was screened on the UK's Channel 4 last night. It received much pre-emptive flak for showing the 9/11 hijackers as human beings, and for trying to get inside their minds and understand their motives. Two lines of attack were that Ronan Bennett, co-writer with Alice Perman, is an Irish Republican and 'therefore' a terrorist sympathiser, and that screening the film so close to the anniversary of the atrocities is offensive to the relatives and friends of the victims. Both of these are just right-wing political correctness and can be dismissed out of hand.
In fact the film is good, though slow. The physical resemblances of the actors to their originals, particularly the actor playing Mohammed Atta, is uncanny. It shows them as weak, alienated individuals being recruited by the classic methods of any campus cult. (The full details of how they joined Al-Qaeda only became public after it was too late to include them.) Young men without a strong sense of self are a Microsoft for mind viruses, and these were no exception.
Whatever the film's intentions, its effect is that of a recruitment video for militant atheism. We see what was in these guys' minds all right, and what was in their minds was a mass of religious rubbish.
There can be few who don't feel anguish at the sight of the Russian school seige and mass terrorist hostage-taking of 400 people, half of them children. The agony of the parents whose children are at the mercy of the murderous Chechen terrorists and the ruthless and bungling Russian security forces is painful to imagine. The prospect of a bloodbath like this anywhere is horrible enough, but its location is one that may yet concern the rest of us.
Northern Ossetia borders not only Chechnya but Southern Ossetia, which is the only place in the world where Russian and US troops are physically present on opposite sides of a shooting war, albeit (for now) a low-key one. (US-backed Georgia is trying to hold on to South Ossetia, whose population has either fled north or is eager to separate from Georgia and re-unify with Russia.) Ossetians are the people everybody called Alan is named after, which may be a subtle clue that messing with Ossetians is not a good idea. The Caucasus could become for this century what the Balkans were for the last.
The usual sensitive background analysis is provided by the War Nerd.