Lessons of Beslan

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(Host) The recent terrorist attacks in Russia found commentator Caleb Daniloff looking closer to home, and reflecting on the perspective of Ilias Akhmadov, Chechnya’s exiled foreign minister now living in southern Vermont.

(Daniloff) All across Vermont last week, thousands of nervous students started school, fretting over outfits, binders, locker combinations, and directions to their classrooms.

On the same day, in rural southern Russia, first-day fears took on horrific new meaning. Calling for an end to the war in Chechnya, militants seized Beslan School number one along with twelve hundred students, parents and teachers. As we know, it ended very badly.

While Vermont middle and high school students searched for lockers and homerooms, students in Beslan were reportedly being stood up as human shields in gym windows. As students here decided between grilled cheeses and Sloppy Joes, Beslan students were drinking their own urine to survive. The three-day siege ended in a storm of explosions and bullets. Three hundred dead, at least half of them children.

The contrast was so glaring, it screeched. I realized how insulated we are despite the information revolution, and the terrorist attacks on our own soil. Instead of demanding answers, we ought to be asking more questions.

Chechnya is a mostly Muslim region with no cultural links to Russia. It has been fighting Moscow on and off for centuries. The current decade-long conflict has left upwards of 200,000 Chechens dead, including tens of thousands of children. The Russian military has lost thousands of soldiers. Torture and kidnappings are rampant on both sides.

I spoke with Ilias Akhmadov, Chechnya’s exiled foreign minister now living in southern Vermont. He told me, The industry of death doesn’t breed normal people. They’ve lost any illusion of a civilized solution to this conflict. This is not religious fanaticism. It’s fanaticism to survive.

Russia’s unyielding militaristic approach to the separatist movement is especially worrisome to Akhmadov, who has political asylum in the U.S.

Akhmadov also recently spoke to the New York Times and said, “The elimination of one-fourth of the Chechen population is not the struggle against terrorism. On the contrary, it is something that leads to the growth of terrorism.”

A generation of Chechen youth is being raised on hopelessness, death and destruction ideal recruits for Islamic extremism.

And it’s not just in Chechnya where this industry of death grinds forward. Iraq, Palestine, Sudan, the list gets longer all the time. And borders are continually breached, from both sides. Russia has now vowed to take the fight global. So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise if members of Generation Death start showing up on our doorsteps.

It’s tempting to think that our lives will stay untouched, forever bucolic. We’re small, out of the way, harmless. But like all states, we have malls, busy restaurants, and schools. Terrorism is always unexpected, its target everyday reality, its impact the perversion of normalcy.

Until last week, the first day of school in Russia had been marked with celebration, entire families arriving with flowers for teachers. From now on, it’s a dark anniversary. The town of Beslan is not much smaller than Burlington. One resident there was quoted as saying. “We’re a small community. Everyone here knows everybody else.” Sound familiar?

This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.

Caleb Daniloff is a copywriter and freelance journalist.

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