By Crispin Sartwell
"All Russia is mourning those killed in the terrorist act. People who prepared and carried out this
inhumane act are waging a war against their own people." Thus Russian President Putin on the
attack on the government headquarters in Grozny, Chechnya, that left at least 50 people dead
and many wounded.
But despite the use of the term by Russian authorities and even by the American press, the
attack was not an act of terrorism; it was an act of rebellion.
Terrorism is violence carried out against non-combatants. When Palestinian suicide bombers
blow up a commuter bus, or al Qaeda operatives crash an airplane into a skyscraper, that is
terrorism. But when rebels blow up the government headquarters - which served among other
things as the nerve center of military operations - during a civil war, that has nothing to do with
And to call it terrorism is the merest propaganda, sheer disinformation, simply an attempt to
discredit an ongoing rebellion that has tremendous popular support.
Now there are various reasons why the casual observer might accept the term "terrorism"
here. First of all, it is likely that the rebels who carried out the attack - like most of the rebels in
the region - are radical Moslems, and we associate radical Islam with terrorism. But, of course, it
can't be that everything Islamists do is terrorism.
Also, the attack on the Grozny compound was a suicide bombing, which is the sort of act
typical of terrorists. And yet the fact that combatants die in battle is no more a mark of terrorism
than it is of any other sort of armed conflict.
In passing, the stories about the bombing often mentioned that the government headquarters
was one of the few buildings left standing in Grozny, a city of half a million souls. Now I
wonder who blew up all the other buildings, and I wonder who was inside. The people who did
that - the Russian occupation forces - are terrorists.
Indeed, the civilian population of Chechnya has been absolutely decimated by a decade of state
terror, and Putin's outrage is an obscene hypocrisy from a man that has followed a policy of
systematic destruction and depopulation. If Vladimir Putin is determined to root out the
terrorists operating in Chechnya, he might start by executing himself.
Putin, like many world leaders including our own, deploys the Humpty Dumpty theory of
meaning. As Humpty says to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: `When I use a word,' Humpty
Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `[who] is to be master -- that's all.'
Often, indeed, the powerful labor under the delusion that words mean whatever they want
them to mean. It sometimes seems in the mouths of the powerful the word "terrorist" is being
used simply to mean whoever is fighting against the powerful, a standard according to which
George Washington and Jesus, for example, turn out to be terrorists.
Sometimes, rebellion is justified. And if it has ever been justified, it is justified for the people
of Chechnya, fighting desperately and with unspeakable courage for self-determination, against a
huge war machine. And though I don't think they should be taking Moscow theater-goers
hostage, it's also worth remembering that the hostages who died were killed by the Russian
The US government finds itself in a bit of a dilemma. We're trying to line up the Russian
government in the "war on terror," and the people we're fighting against have various
connections to the Chechen rebels.
But as we fight against terrorists, it would be desirable not to be allied with terrorists,
whether they're revolutionaries or bland bureaucrats.