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A Difficult Choice

Andrew C. Thomas

Until the newspapers hit the stands early Saturday morning, a rather large number of people were unaware of a terrifying situation developing in Moscow. Chechen freedom fighters had taken over 700 hostages in a theater, demanding to President Vladimir Putin that Russia withdraw all military forces from the area. The entrances to the theater were mined, and the hostage takers were themselves loaded with explosives. Early Saturday morning the situation ended as anesthetic gas was deployed to the inside of the theater, incapacitating or killing the hostage takers. Saturday’s headlines in USA Today and the Boston Globe triumphantly claimed that the hostage situation had ended successfully.

What was not so evident in the Saturday morning news was that an astonishing 117 hostages also died. Fear had arisen that they had been killed by an explosion from one of the bombs, perhaps strapped to one of the Chechens. A medical report released the next day established that with one known exception, the majority of the hostages were killed by the gas itself, the agent used by the Russians that was meant to save them.

Let us examine the facts. There were over 50 rebels conducting this operation -- at least, this was the number that Russian Special Forces shot while immobilized -- enough of which were walking bombs to make a conventional raid difficult. They had already executed at least two hostages, proving that they were serious about killing more. A pattern of recent bombings across Russia has shown that they are willing to kill innocents in order to accomplish their goals. And the ongoing rebellion has proven that loyal Chechens are more than willing to die for their cause.

All of these factors make the situation extremely difficult to control. If any strong attempt is made to rescue the hostages, it is extremely likely that the Chechen freedom fighters will end it all by blowing up the theater and killing over 700 people, an outcome that no one would prefer. This was the bargaining chip that the rebels thought they could count on.

What were the Russians’ options? Submitting to the demands of terrorists is a universally loathed alternative, since it would strengthen the position of terrorists everywhere, but even for something as large as the political reorganization of an entire province, saving 700 innocent lives is a noble goal. Having a commando team infiltrate the building would be dangerous, if over 50 people were armed, since I doubt that the efficiency of such a team would be sufficient enough to neutralize each one before a single member could detonate every bomb in the building. The other option, having Bruce Willis enter the building from below and proceed to kick terrorist butt, will no doubt be the position Hollywood will take, should it choose to resculpt this tragedy in its preferred viewpoint.

So the Russians were forced to confront the attackers in order to bring resolution, but quickly enough that the explosives would not be detonated. Anesthetic gas would certainly be an effective means. But strength was an issue. If too weak, the incapacitation might not be sufficient to prevent detonation.

But here is the crux of the problem. The hostages had been kept for almost three days under extremely tense conditions. Their terror had weakened them throughout the entire ordeal. While the hostage takers had themselves been under the same conditions, I would imagine they were mentally prepared, and certainly driven by their cause. So whatever agent they might employ would likely have a more adverse effect on the hostages.

The hostage takers had already begun executing innocent people. As time went on the odds were increasing that someone would panic and blow the building up. Something had to be done in order to save lives. And the Russians did something. They took a big chance. They apparently used a strong enough agent that none of the occupiers was able to detonate an explosive. When Russian Special Forces then entered the building, they themselves executed the occupiers and began to remove the hostages. It was only later discovered how many innocent people had died.

If someone handed me a gun and told me that by shooting a person, I would save the lives of ten others, I doubt I would have the mettle to carry it out, no matter how much I believed it was the right thing to do. The Russian Special Forces, though, have a stronger constitution. Knowing that people were dying, they took an extreme measure in an attempt to save lives. Whether there was a miscalculation on the part of scientists, causing more deaths than necessary, is as yet unknown.

While I loathe the use of the word because of its abuse in the black-and-white War of Bush, this was an act of terrorism. My pain is for those innocents who died, but we must remember that they did not die in vain; their deaths may have paid for the lives of so many other people.

It is with deep personal conviction that I believe that the Russian Special Forces took the correct action with the pragmatic solution to the problem, rather than stand idly by and wait for people to die. That over one hundred people had to pay this price, though, saddens me deeply. Many would hope that the situation could be ended without further loss of life, but barring a miracle, such an end in this situation was a foolish hope. This serves as a lesson to all that further efforts should be taken to prevent such incidents from occurring -- and that the preservation of life should be our goal as a species -- but part of my hope goes to the Russians who had to make, and now live with, the difficult choice.