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Russia Profile
October 24, 2004
The Paradoxes of Living With Terror
Our Lives Will Have to Change, But How?

By Alexei Pankin

When you hear about bombings, plane crashes and the killing of hostages - children who, just like your own, were celebrating the start of the new school year - your head begins to spin. You forget there are politicians we elect, security officials they appoint and journalists who keep them accountable. You begin to think about what we as a people can do to prevent such tragedies. However, you soon discover a series of gloomy paradoxes.

Shortly before the terrorist attacks, I spoke to the son of some old friends. He told me that one of his friends, a young policeman, had been put on "passport duty." In other words, he checked people's papers on the streets. "He earned a minimum of $200 a day," I was told. "But now he's been moved to a different post where there's no such chance to profit, and he finds it hard to make it from one payday to the next."

After the Beslan tragedy, I met a friend, an ex-special forces officer who now heads a private security firm. He had just buried two colleagues who had been killed storming the school in Beslan. He said that in the 1990s, officers from elite anti-terrorist units often asked to be released from training to make $50 carrying someone's money to the bank. They did this to compensate for their miserly wages. "At least the housing situation has improved," said my friend. "In the past, if an officer's family lived in his service apartment, they lost the right to live there if he was killed."

Compare this to the lives of the oligarchs. I recently talked to someone who has met oligarchs, sometimes informally. "One has a gym for his children the size of your apartment," he said. "Another has a pool at his villa with live sturgeon."

What do the policeman, the ex-special forces officer and the oligarch have in common? The answer is that they all get money from the state budget. (I hope it is clear that oligarchs make their fortunes from the government.) This system is built on a canal lock principle. Sturgeon swim around on one side, while public security is drained on the other.

"If they're thieves, they should be imprisoned," said the visitor to the oligarch's villa. "But why are some people prosecuted, while others are allowed to keep acting like the country's masters?"

"Our prosecutors cannot deal with just three of them: Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky," I replied. "Thanks to their incompetence, every case turns into a huge international human rights scandal. With this kind of personnel, there are only two things to do. Either you deal with all the oligarchs at once, without pretending to go through the courts, or you increase the staffs and salaries of the law enforcement agencies tenfold. Both paths can lead to a 1937-style situation."

Take another episode. I was recently invited to court as a potential juror. The police officers chatting outside the courthouse showed no interest in my papers or my briefcase. When the metal detector went off at the entrance, they didn't even bat an eyelid.

This is a metaphor for our lives. Progressive judicial reform is underway, yet in the courthouse itself, our slovenly cops are indifferent to the lives of the people they are supposed to protect. And this was right after the horrors of August.

Meanwhile, our press is in the grips of Stockholm Syndrome. They explain the motives of the terrorists and sling mud at the government. I have lost count of how many times I have read that the authorities' failure to state the correct number of hostages led to their captors depriving them of water. When one journalist claimed that the terrorists had raped children, he was corrected. This report had not been confirmed, he was told. And people keep discussing how many hostages were killed due to the rescuers' incompetence.

I find it blasphemous to discuss the nuances of the behavior of people who hang bombs above young children. In such cases, an emergency operation should not be judged on how many people were killed, but on how many were saved.

You should never be published or get on the air with this Munich-type approach. I often explode at such moments. But censorship is also no solution. On state television, we can see that the news editors are only interested in pleasing their bosses.

I see no easy way out. We could, as the Communists demand, punish "Yeltsin's gang" for robbing the nation, creating the oligarchs and starting the war in Chechnya. Or one could criticize the Putin administration for its slow, inefficient approach to reforming the military and security services. But even the bravest critic cannot solve the dilemma of terrorism. Breeding new police officers, leaders and journalists will take years, even if some genius appears with all the answers and begins the necessary reforms right away.

I only know what I can do myself. For the first time in my life, I informed on the useless policemen outside the courthouse. I will not mind being asked for my documents on the street or waiting in line at the airport, even if I think that the police are being ineffective. In my magazine, I will write that journalism is not about discovering sensations, but about seeing the connections between events and observing the principle "Do no harm."

Whether this will be useful or not is a different matter.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals [www.sreda-mag.ru]. He submitted this comment to Russia Profile.