"So do you condemn terrorism or not?" a young, immature journalist asked me with a mix of agitation and sarcasm.
I refused to answer.
I told him that I hated the pretentious, tainted term: "terrorism." He thought it was a poor attempt to escape the ritual condemnation of terrorism that is necessary for all who wish to be accepted into civil societies, especially in the West.
But of course I condemn terrorism, if terrorism means the murder of innocent people for the sake of gaining political influence, or for inflicting punishment or simply to advance an argument. I condemn all kinds of terrorism -- that of a nation-state, no matter how mighty, as much as that of a solitary sniper gunning down innocent men and women. But in practice, it is only the powerless who receive retribution for it.
"Terrorism" is seen only in one context: the effect, but never the cause, as though suicide bombings, the Moscow theater hostage crisis, the Kurdish rebels' frequent attacks on the Turkish army and more were all born in a vacuum.
In an interview with a National Public Radio station two months after the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I reiterated to a thoughtful host: "We must try to see through the pain of the innocent thousands killed on that dreadful day. We cannot be so blinded by our anger to the point that we fail to see how violence begets violence. If we are keenly interested in bringing terrorism to a halt, we must have the courage to examine its roots."
Growing up to become a suicide bomber is simply not the course of normal human behavior. Leaving one's children behind in Grozny, going to Moscow and seizing hundreds of people at gunpoint in a theater is not an act born out of some ingrained Chechen hatred for Russians. Nor have the Kurds fought for more than 15 years simply because they are, in some mysterious way, bad folk, full of unexplainable hostility.
I sank into my chair in disbelief when I heard how many people were poisoned by Russia's use of gas in retaking the theater in Moscow. But I admit it: I also lamented the death of the 50 rebels. Condemn me if you wish, but I couldn't hold back my tears when I saw the images of more than 10 Chechen women, clearly young, crouching on their knees, some gazing heavenward, all dead.
We are not programmed to pity such people: They are the ones who initiated the violence; they are the insurgents, the rebels, the terrorists. All we owe them is unquestioning condemnation.
But I will ask questions. When such groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International call for an international investigation of Russia's actions in Chechnya, why have the United Nations, the American administration and other Western governments not pressed the issue? Why is Russia allowed a free hand in Chechnya? Why have the Chechens endured so many massacres at the hands of the Russian army?
We can only hope that Moscow will recover from its nightmare and return to normality. We can hold out no such hopes for Grozny, though. The Russian army is still there. The fighting, the occupation, the puppet government, the daily terror, mass arrests, rape and torture are all still going on. Human Rights Watch, largely alone, continues with its routine updates on crimes against the civilian population. But who has time to read?
The Chechen suffering doesn't excuse the violent hostage-taking, but it explains it. We can stick our heads in the sand like ostriches and scream aloud, "nothing justifies terrorism." We can block our ears, our brains and accuse those who disagree with us of being "sympathetic with the terrorists" even of being traitors. But that will change nothing.
Moscow will likely find itself the victim of more desperate Chechen attacks. The unilateral cease-fire of the Kurds in Turkey is likely to be ended by the Turkish army's continuing violence against the Kurdish population. Suicide bombings in the Mideast may subside or change style or targets, but they will not cease.
"Fighting terror" is the new trend, whereby aggressive, powerful countries crush their weaker foes, deprive them of freedom, of humanity even, terrorize them, degrade them, arrest them en masse, test their latest weapons on them -- while continuing to blame them for all the wrongs of the world.
And we, the people of this world who mean well but fail to act, are expected to believe everything we are told. Israel is defending itself as though it were the Palestinians who occupy Israeli territories, besiege the Israeli people, blow up their homes, steal their land and gun down their children. (Israel's Ariel Sharon was not content just to condemn the Chechen hostage-takers but also praised the Russian "victory.") We are expected to hate the Kurdish rebels and deny any feelings of sympathy toward the Chechens, because the powerful set the tone of the battle, the definitions -- what deserves to be condemned and what is regarded as a victory.
When will we treasure the lives of all nations on an equal level, whether American, Afghani, Iraqi, Israeli, Palestinian, Turkish, Kurdish, Russian, Chechen and all others? How long will we remain blinded by empty slogans, unexplained hatred and pretentious condemnations?
The writer, a Palestinian journalist, is editor in chief of PalestineChronicle.com.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company