Beslan’s Terrorists Show the Dark Side of Human Emotions

Damaged children grow up to believe that only violence can change

Like most Australians I have been devastated by the unfolding tragedy in Russia. Or perhaps even more so. I have school age children, and like many parents, was overwhelmed with pity for those pacing helpless and unknowing outside the mined school building: Were their children thirsty? Hurt? Dead? I was similarly undone by the Jaiden Leskie case several years ago: Jaiden was the age of my youngest son when he disappeared.

My fretfulness during the Beslan siege, and my mournful grief for the parents as they wail and bury their dead, is empathy: the emotion provoked in normal people by the suffering of others. It is the quality psychopaths and serial killers lack and, experts increasingly believe, one that must be nurtured during a child’s early years to develop properly. Chronic poverty, political powerlessness and social indifference: these are the social conditions that undermine the ability of parents to raise adults with the capacity to feel the pain of others, and to live peacefully in society as one of us. These same conditions foster the belief amongst such damaged children that violence is the only salve for their pent-up anger and frustration, and the only route to change.

There can be no forgiveness of what the Beslan terrorists did to the children and parents of that town. Nor does there need to be. They have violated the most sacred responsibility of adults to children – to protect them and offer them a future – and in doing so have made them, indeed all of us, feel like failures. Justice, rough or otherwise, is more than they deserve.

But how best to honour the dead and the children who survived? How do we make it up to them? Their parents will do the small things: hold them when they cry, soothe their restless sleep. Mother Russia is already talking tough about beefed-up security, leading some to fear a return to Soviet-style oppression.

Will this make the children feel safe? Perhaps, but perhaps not – it’s never held much water with my kids. Even a ten-year old understands it only takes one terrorist to slip through the net for tragedy to occur.

It’s normal, understandable and entirely forgivable for individuals and societies who’ve suffered in Beslan, after Bali and on 9/11 to want retribution. But more for practical reasons than moral ones, an eye for an eye will never be the answer. In the past many Irish terrorists, and Palestinian ones today, were the terrorized children of yesterday, retaliating against someone – anyone – for the sudden and traumatic death of a loved one that sometimes took place before their eyes. It is said the claimed organiser of the Beslan siege lost 11 family members in a Russian assault on Chechnya. And so it goes. In the end, an eye for an eye just leaves blind, toothless and scared to death.

Giving our children a future demands we adults do the hardest thing there is: insist on seeing the terrorists as human. Yes, it’s easier to dismiss them as “animals” and fanatics inexplicably severed from normal human emotions and aspirations; monsters at birth who were never like us. But until we recognise terrorists as the sharp-edge of icebergs of social deprivation and despair, their distorted humanity sourced in some real-world trauma that could have been different and could still change, it is we who lose.

This is no Christian turn the other cheek, nor an argument for forgiveness and understanding. Those who perform terrorist acts deserve neither. Nor is it the soft-end of an either/or solution that has better crisis response and heightened security at the other pole. In the short term at least, we must do both.

Instead, it is a pragmatic approach to seeing our way clear to another sort of future for the children of Beslan, and our children, too. A future where it is possible to feel safe, to trust others and to plan for the future. Not because there are more security checks and razor-wire. But because we live in a world that doesn’t make terrorists any more.

Publication history

Beslan's Terrorists Show the Dark Side of Human Emotions  Sydney Morning Herald