Dec 1 2001

When the Victims Are Far Away

A very different media response to Moscow bombings

It would be easy, and to some tempting, to say that it is America’s turn—that after years of American gloating over Islam’s attacks on Russia, that after the CIA’s goading of proxies like the Pakistanis to arm Islamic terrorists, that after the brutal destruction of Iraq in the war 10 years ago, it is well past time that America had her own Islamic extremist problem.

It also might be true. This month’s attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon seem most of all the harvest of an American-sown whirlwind.

Repellent words—no doubt written by some perverse leftist with a sneaking sympathy for radical terrorist groups, right? No, this paragraph is a slightly altered version* of an article by New York Times correspondent Michael Wines (9/26/99), writing from Moscow shortly after hundreds of ordinary Moscovites were killed in a string of horrifying apartment-building explosions. (The bombings were blamed on Chechen rebels, though the connection has never been proven.)

Following the September 11 attacks, it was hard to glance at a U.S. op-ed page without coming across an angry polemic against “the left” or anyone else who tried to think critically about the connection between the attacks and the history of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Such efforts were deemed exercises in moral relativism, motivated by a nihilistic desire to “justify” the September 11 atrocities.

Russian soldiers in Chechnya with downed helicopter. (photo: Mikhail Evstafiev)

Russian soldiers in Chechnya with downed helicopter. (photo: Mikhail Evstafiev)

“The reactionary left-liberal crowd in America and in Europe has already staked out its ground here,” Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly wrote (9/26/01). “What happened to America is America’s fault, the fruits of foolish arrogance and greedy imperialism, racism, colonialism, etc., etc.” Jonathan Alter agreed: “This mindless moral equivalency is the nub of what lefties mean when they talk about ‘the chickens coming home to roost,’ or ‘reaping what you sow’” (Newsweek, 10/15/01).

But virtually no one on the left even came close to saying it might be “past time” for a catastrophe like the World Trade Center attacks, as Wines did with the Moscow apartment bombings. To Extra!’s knowledge, Michael Wines’ comments never became fodder for an outraged nationally syndicated column.

When Russia responded to the apartment bombings with a brutal air campaign in Chechnya, the Chicago Tribune (9/28/99) weighed in with a stinging critique. In an editorial titled “Fighting Terror With Terror,” the Tribune said the government

has responded to terrorist [attacks] . . . aimed at the heart of [the country] with a bombing campaign of its own aimed at militant Islamics . . . who have been blamed . . . for the attacks.

The practical effect of . . . bomb and missile attacks so far is a panicked . . . population in full flight, creating a nightmare refugee crisis as winter approaches and further destabilizing the entire . . . region. An estimated 50,000 refugees . . . already have poured into . . . neighboring [countries] prompting officials there to close that border and beg . . . for humanitarian aid.

The [bombers] claim their air attacks are precisely aimed at Islamic rebel bases, oil refineries and industrial targets. . . . [The government has] argued that surgical air strikes can “patiently, methodically destroy” the rebels. It isn’t at all clear air strikes are the best way to combat a determined guerrilla operation. It is quite clear they can create utter chaos among the civilian population.

A virtually identical editorial could have been written about the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan that has, by late October 2001, reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and drawn scathing criticism from humanitarian groups who warn of a refugee crisis and a hunger epidemic. Unlike Wines’ callous musings, the Tribune’s editorial actually sounds like something an American peace activist might have written about the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

But the Tribune seems to reserve its skepticism for other countries’ military adventures. Now that it is America “fighting terror” with bombing, the U.S. airstrikes are described by the paper’s editorialists (10/8/01) as “masterful”; they wrote gladly of “bombs and missiles” that have “rained down on Taliban military installations and the terrorist camps of the Al Qaeda network,” evidence of a nation that “is acting not in vengeance, but in its own protection. . . . This is the defense of this nation and others threatened by terrorism. There was no gentler option.”

A few weeks into the bombing, the Berkeley city council passed a resolution on the Afghan war that called for “bringing the bombing to a conclusion as quickly as possible, avoiding actions that could endanger the lives of innocent people in Afghanistan,” and urging the government to “concentrate . . . on bringing to justice all those who were complicit in last month’s attack.”

The resolution’s sober, pragmatic tone was reminiscent of the Tribune’s 1999 Chechnya editorial. But faced with questioning of its own government’s bombing campaign, the Tribune reflexively churned out a snide editorial—“Hell No, Berkeley Won’t Go” (10/22/01)—attacking city leaders who “blather utter nonsense.” Proving once again that the mote in your neighbor’s eye is usually much easier to see.

*Here’s Wines’ original: “It would be easy, and to some tempting, to say that it is Russia’s turn—that after years of Soviet gloating over Islam’s attacks on the West, that after the KGB’s goading of proxies like the East Germans to arm Middle Eastern terrorists, that after the brutal destruction of Chechnya in the civil war three years ago, it is well past time that Russia had her own Islamic extremist problem. It also might be true. This month’s bloody invasion of Dagestan by Islamic guerrillas and the subsequent bombings of Russian apartment houses, now widely ascribed to them, seem most of all the harvest of a Russian-sown whirlwind.”