A couple of weeks ago I watched a documentary on PBS about the Beslan school hostage crisis near the border of Chechnya where hundreds of children and parents were killed. I also started reading a book yesterday called Kremlin Rising: Putin's Russia and the End of the Revolution. The book opens with a detailed account by the two authors, who were both at the school during the entire crisis. For those that aren't familiar with it, a group of Muslim terrorists seized an elementary school in Russia near Chechnya and held hundreds of children and parents hostage, demanding that Putin withdraw all troops from Chechnya and allow Chechnya to become a sovereign state. The end result was the death of hundreds of children and their parents and teachers, many of them blown up by terrorist explosives and many others simply gunned down in the ensuing chaos.
Both the documentary and the account in the book are riveting, horrifying, and deeply saddening. The documentary showed video footage taken from inside the gymnasium where hundreds of frightened children were ordered to their knees with their hands over their heads, sitting inches from terrorists in checked headscarves with their feet on dead man switches linked to explosives that they made the children themselves string around the gym. When the children wouldn't calm down and were ordered to, the terrorists shot a father in the head in front of his two boys sitting next to him. The body was left there in the room in the middle of all of the hostages for days as a reminder.
One particular account in the book is what prompted me to write this:
After several days in the standoff -- by this point the children had stripped to their underwear because of the heat, several had died in their parents' arms from heart attacks because the terrorists had stopped giving them water, and many were drinking their own urine in order to stay alive -- something had detonated somewhere in the school. Chaos broke out and the shooting began on both sides, between the terrorists, the Russian special forces, and the armed civilians of Beslan whose children were inside. The terrorists were screaming into their phone to their contacts in the Russian government that they had not detonated anything on purpose; no one could hear them. The situation was completely out of control. Hostages took advantage of the chaos and began to flee out of the gym windows; some of them were gunned down in the crossfire between the terrorists and the Russian forces and civilians.
Inside the gym, a father was grabbing children and nearly throwing them out of the window to apparent safety. Some of the terrorists were mere feet from him, some trying to regain control of the situation, some trying to save their own lives or just escape being captured.
At one point, Tsagolov, the man helping children out of the window, grabbed a ten year old boy in his dirty underwear and helped him to the window ledge. The boy stood up to jump. Tsagolov turned and saw the ringleader of the hostage takers turn, aim his rifle, and shoot the child. The bullets pierced the boy's heart and blood spurted out of his chest. He fell to the ground, dead.
Here is what I want to know: how does one begin a task from a place of apparent high morality -- in this case, ending the war in Chechnya and stopping the apparent Russian slaughter of hundreds of Chechen men, women, and children -- and end in a place where, after you've lost all of your bargaining chips, after you've lost any control over a situation and likely realize that the only thing left for you to do is to try and save your hide and flee to safety, you can deliberately take aim at a child who is no longer of any use to you and kill them?
In a hypothetical world with no emotional attachments and the non-existent ability to look at everything in a detached and clinical manner, you can almost see why a group like this would take civilian children and parents hostage for use as bargaining chips -- a few of the hostage takers were women strapped with explosives, women whose husbands and children had been killed in the war and had absolutely nothing to lose and no hope to keep them from killing themselves to stop what they felt was an unjust war. It's even nearly understandable in such a frame of reference that they might even go so far as to actually blow up the hostages in order to make a grand point and say, "we are prepared to make good on our threat to show you how serious we are."
It's entirely another thing to imagine someone killing a fleeing child after the situation has gone out of control and after they've more than obviously lost the use of live children as bargaining chips and likely recognize that dead children are certainly not going to be useful as bargaining chips either.
These people aren't insane, at least not in the way a serial killer or anyone who would kill for pleasure is insane. They have a cause; they are people who were so profoundly affected by what happened to their own family that they're willing to kill themselves for what they perceive is a greater good. There is some shred of humanity in that even if we don't want to recognize it. So how do they lose that humanity enough to simply kill a frightened, fleeing child in cold blood? What's more, how are we supposed to understand the anger, frustration, and pain that drives a man to the extreme measures he goes to for his cause when he can, when his own life is in danger, lift his rifle, take aim, and murder that child who's simply running for his life?
I'm frustrated, I'm sad, and I don't understand why this happens.