Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Collective Guilt

A remarkable essay in New Times by Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov argues that the Russian secret services will not be able to defeat terrorism. Interestingkly, he bases this assertion on the notion that terrorism - particularly the kind of terrorism that is practised by the Chechen resistance - is based on concepts that are in some important ways foreign to the Russian mindset:

Why is it that the question of Islamic terrorism is now posed so acutely? There is a current view that terrorism does not need popular support, that individuals or small groups can go about their horrible business without any approval of the masses. There seems to be no contradiction in this as logic goes. But we see how jubilant crowds welcome any effective terrorist act. What is the reason?

I believe a very important circumstance is involved in this. For historic or other reasons (on which experts should ponder) terrorism, to my mind, receives the biggest popular support wherever there is the notion of collective guilt, and where this notion becomes one of the fundamental principles. What is the blood feud all about? It is based on the notion of collective guilt. It is a primitive notion, characteristic of undeveloped legal systems. Nevertheless, it is a deeply-rooted notion. If I killed your relative, I must realize that you will be killing my relatives with the belief that you are avenging on the guilty because we are of the same clan. Terrorism is based on the same notion. Russian soldiers behave atrociously in Chechnya, so we will avenge ourselves on Russian citizens – such is Chechens’ logic. So a terrorist act is regarded as something natural there. It cannot cause the horror and repulsion it causes among the people of European Christian civilization who view the collective responsibility only in a moral and historic sense. This is a very important factor that must be taken into account.

There are subtle and paradoxical manifestations of this. The trouble in Russia is that we have no notion of, or don’t want to realize what the national guilt is, the moral guilt rather than the juridical, requiring sanctions. Germans have this notion but we don’t. Even raising the matter prompts indignation. What can we be guilty of? We are victims! Whereas in the Caucasus the sense of collective guilt is deeply rooted in the conscience, the collective guilt in the true sense of the notion, in the biblical sense, if you wish – seven generations should pay for the guilt, should be exterminated.

Indeed, Islam is a biblical religion. Christianity, however, has long since veered from these biblical considerations into deep aspects of morality, and got firmly planted there, it seems, not on the basis of the profound knowledge of the Bible. What can be done about that.

Kovalyov looks to the West. The West. he believes, must substitute its offers of help to Russia in defeating terrorism with an honest and open appraisal of what the conflict in Chechnya is actually about:

Is there room in these generalized reflections for a specific peace plan for Chechnya? I think the core of such a plan is the internationalization of the conflict on which the West should insist firmly, by demands, rather than persuasion. The West should take a stand of having the right to uphold its view of the conflict rather than stating the readiness to help.

I believe such an approach must become normal for the contemporary community. All the members of the community must have their own stand on such conflicts, and must have the right and opportunity to take part in their solution. For instance, Ilias Akhmadov (who was foreign minister in Aslan Maskhadov’s government – Ed.) have proposed any form of a mandated territory. This proposal is, certainly, far more realistic than, say, the plan to dispatch United Nations forces to Chechnya. They can only be sent there by the Security Council in which Russia wields a veto. Even before Akhmadov’s plan emerged, the Russian national committee for ending the war and establishing peace in the Chechen Republic had pronounced its own, quite specific, plan but that aspect was expressed there in a more generalized way. The need for mediation and monitoring by other countries and the need to internationalize the conflict was stressed there.

It is apparent that Akhmadov’s plan, too, is presently unfeasible because the international community treats any statement of the Russian authorities, and we have heard what President Putin said after the Beslan events as the final say.

This is understandable because all the countries, members of the international community, have their own guilts, too. In this situation, not a single state is ready to come up and declare “Yes, we are imperfect, but we don’t want to live in such a world any longer. We must live in a rule-of-law world.” Sooner or later this will happen as there is no other way out. But politicians presently are unprepared for this, so it is for society to demand such a stand from politicians. All other pragmatic steps are possible, but if we don’t strive for radical change of the situation we will find ourselves in a quagmire. This is clearly shown by history.

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