After terrorist siege, Beslan hatred fueled peaceful protest
Above, mothers of victims of the school siege walk to a court, holding portraits of their children, in Vladikavkaz, May 16, 2006. Prosecutors had called for the death penalty for Nur-Pasha Kulayev, who admitted participating in the attack on school in Beslan in 2004, but denied killing anybody. Posters read: “We demand justice!” (left) and “Kulayev and the like, be damned for all eternity!!!” (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
By Clint Talbott
In Beslan, a city in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia, militants seized a school and took 1,200 hostages in 2004. The standoff lasted 53 hours, during which hostages were tortured, terrorized and killed. Some events are disputed, but it is known that the siege ended with a series of explosions, prolonged gunfire and a raid by Russian special forces.
In the end, 331 people (including 186 children) died, and nearly 800 others were injured.
Given the horrific violence and the fact that the hostage-takers were ethnic foes, observers expected a violent backlash along ethnic lines. But violent retribution was minimal, and victims largely responded with peaceful activism. Why?
Two political scientists—one at the University of Colorado and one at Notre Dame—sought to find out. One reason the cycle of violence stopped, they found, is that victims most likely to engage in peaceful activism also tended to be the most alienated from the Russian government.
They also found that Beslan victims who felt the most hatred and anger were six to nine times more likely to engage in peaceful political activism than less-angry victims. Hatred, anger and resentment can, they concluded, be “peaceful, productive emotions.”
“These people suffered in ways that I hope I’ll never know … and have come out contributing to their society by demanding clarity on what happened and provisions put in place so that it won’t happen again,” observes Vanessa Baird, associate professor of political science at CU-Boulder.
“They are acting as they should as human beings,” she adds, saying that “inspiring is maybe even too soft a word.”
The largely peaceful response to horrendous violence came even though the Ossetians, who are mostly Orthodox Christians, have a history of tension and violence with the ethnic Ingush and Chechens, who are mostly Muslim. Evidence suggests that most hostage-takers were ethnic Ingush or Chechen.
Ingushetia and Chechnya are east of North Ossetia and are situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.
Baird, along with Debra Javeline, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, surveyed 1,098 victims of the school siege.
“Beslan is as notable for what did not happen as what did,” Javeline and Baird write in the journal Problems of Post-Communism, which published their findings last year.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that Beslan victims despise the terrorists. Some victims said they also despise the Ingush and Chechen people generally and even support retaliation.
But most Beslan victims opposed violent retribution either “somewhat” or “strongly.” Only a small minority, 13.9 percent, favored an eye for an eye.
As Baird and Javeline found, those who were proud of the Russian government were more prone to favor killing the same number of Chechens as were killed in Beslan; this group also tended to be socially alienated and was less likely to become politically active.
On the other hand, victims who suspected that the Russian government was complicit in the violence, or that it obscured its role in the atrocities, were much more likely to engage in peaceful political protest.
While their activism was peaceful, their inner state was not. The victims who were angriest—and who reported feeling the most hatred—were the most likely to stage demonstrations, make public pleas for justice and appeal to the international community for help.
The angriest victims were about six to nine times more politically active than less-angry victims.
As Baird and Javeline write: “Although the conventional wisdom denounces hatred and related sentiments, the data suggest that hatred, anger and resentment can be peaceful, productive emotions.”
While many Beslan victims despise the terrorists, many also despise political officials, some of whom are alleged to have taken bribes and helped the terrorists travel from Ingushetia into North Ossetia.
“Victims of violence who lose pride in their country and feel ashamed and incredibly angry may be the very victims who give a voice to their community and deter the community from further violence,” Javeline and Baird write.
“They expected better treatment from the government,” Baird notes.
In a sense, Baird adds, the Beslan victims have been politically active “like Americans, or even more politically active than Americans.” That fact is surprising given the repressive nature of the Russian government.
For the Beslan victims, “There’s no reason to believe that the government will be responsive,” Baird says. But the victims tend to believe that the Russian people will care about their plight.
By contrast, pessimism and social alienation are not productive, the pair found: “Such victims are to be feared as potential perpetrators of the cycle of violence.”
One politically active leader in Beslan, Ella Kesayeva, put it this way: “The terrorists who seized the school in Beslan also said that their families had died, their loved ones killed, and that is why they had come to kill. But this is a vicious cycle that must be broken.”
Baird concurs. She and Javeline hope their work helps to broadcast the victims’ voices.