Mark Sept. 1 on the Calendar

The scene in Rietavas, Lithuania, on September 1, 1996– it’s the first day of school. (imagine a similar picture at every school in Lithuania, Russia and the former Soviet Union). Tradition dictates that the oldest 12th grade students escort the youngest first grade students to their classes. Students, parents and teachers don their best clothes. The 12th grade students opted to wear their Soviet-era black and brown uniforms. Students held fresh flowers to greet their teachers and perhaps soften them up a bit. We gathered first in church (Lithuania’s an overwhelmingly Catholic country.) It was sunny, crisp, beautiful day–one of my favorites as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The town came together, whether they had children or not, and saw the children off to school. A soviet relic with charm. September 1, is or rather was, always a joyous, hopeful day.

Now, switch to Beslan, in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. Queue a similar procession, flowers, and music. Subtract the church visit. Now add a nightmare: At the school year’s opening, more then a dozen guerrillas stormed Middle School Number 1. The media will recount the details, of the siege here but here are the bare facts. Armed rebels held students and teachers there for a week’s time and laid bombs to foil escape attempts. When the bombs blew up, Russian soldiers stormed the school. Today the death toll reached 338. Add September 1, to September 11 and March 11, another day when tragedy struck and changed the way that we saw the world.

Why? There are no easy answers. Here’s a geopolitical take: Russia’s been in a prolonged struggle with Chechnya, the so-called renegade province which attempted to declare independence in 1991 and 1994–only to be put down by the Russian army. (An oil pipeline runs through Chechnya–Yeltsin decided Chechnya would remain in the fold.) Like the Lithuanians, the Chechens had good reason to want to leave Russia–in 1944, Stalin sent some 250,000 so-called Nazi collaborators off to Siberia. “Half died enroute. The other half were left in open snowy fields to fend for themselves.” See Masha Gessen’s “What drives the separatists to commit such terrible outrages?” in Slate.

Putin came to power promising to put down the insurrection in Chechnya–likening it to a civil war. (Hint: ‘America, you had yours, stay out of ours.’) And in the quest for better relations, we did. In fact, Russia’s an ally in the so-called “War on Terror.” As Roger Cohen writes, ” Perhaps great struggles are always cast in Manichaean terms of good and evil, with uglier truths, and nuances, concealed within that readily intelligible and readily exploitable model. This was true of the cold war. But it seems even more true of the war on terror, sometimes a Machiavellian construct tending to facilitate a might-is-right approach to governance.”

Might makes right? Wrong. Might has made worse. I condemn the activities of those who raided the school, held children and teachers hostage and committed murder. I am outraged. However, when I look back at the history of this latest tragedy and think of the dead, I think of the spiral of violence that I’ve traced back only as far as the Second World War. Might makes right? No. Instead try: violence begets more violence. It’s easy to forget this truth in the pervasive environment of war, when death becomes commonplace. How sad that we have to mark yet another date on the calendar when yet another violent tragedy has happened. How long before we mark another day? Or worse, when all days are so marked and we become hardened to the violence around us.

When will world leaders take notice and steps to end the cycle of violence instead of perpetuating it?

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