FIFTH COLUMN: Terrorism's Xenophobic Blame Game

Following the explosions in Moscow, which have already taken a heavy toll, an explosion of xenophobia may soon claim its own victims.

If you have a dark complexion, be careful and always carry a passport. If you have a black beard, shave it off or stay off the streets. It does not matter whether you are Azeri, Bulgarian, Chechen, Italian, Georgian, Armenian or Turkish. There are people out there who have always hated the likes of you and who may now have the authorities' silent permission to vent their hatred.

After all, it was Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov who recently said that Chechnya should be sealed off so that no Chechen can ever set foot in Moscow.

If you are from the south, it is you the cops suspect of blowing up those buildings. Viktor Ilyukhin, the Communist chief of the State Duma's security committee, said Monday that the authorities had "loosened control and now more than a million people of Caucasian nationality live in Moscow." He meant, of course, all those dark-skinned people from several countries and half a dozen southern Russian regions.

If they'd followed Ilyukin's logic years ago, Josef Stalin would never have made it past the Moscow patrols. But this is hardly a strong enough argument for setting up a new police state. There is a stronger - political -argument. The southerners have lived side by side with us for decades, and they have always been considered more foreign than "white" foreigners. In other words, many Russian women will think twice before dating a Chechen or a Georgian, but not a Pole or a Brit. In a farmer's market, some people will buy from "white" vendors from Belarus, but not from dark-skinned Dagestanis, though the latter are technically Russian. It affects Arabs and Turks as well as people from southern post-Soviet states, but not Europeans or Americans. In a nutshell, this is a racism much stronger than the new coolness between Russians and Americans. During the war in Kosovo, you could hear Americans talk about how they felt less safe here. And NATO certainly was not bombing Russians. Now, terrorists are bombing Russians, in a bombing campaign that comes fast on the heels of Russia's own bombing campaign in the Caucasus. It is a connection that seems obvious enough to most people. Now, Caucasian nationals are in more danger in Moscow than Western expats could ever imagine. Only Africans and some American blacks - like the American marine who was beaten up by neo-Nazis here a couple of years ago - know what it is like.When a Lebanese citizen suffered severe burns in the Manezh shopping mall explosion, he was automatically suspected of smuggling in the explosives that made the bomb. TV stations broadcast that suspicion without any corroboration. Viewers, for their part, are used to hearing about all these dark-skinned people committing crimes.

The terrorists, no matter what color their skin, feel safe, though. How else could they smuggle sacks of dynamite into residential buildings? Even if the police start checking the identity of every man with black stubble, the guys with the bombs will hire someone of Slavic appearance to do the dirty work.

The bettter argument for locking down the city, then, is that hatred and impotence go hand in hand. When mixed, they work better for political campaigns than just impotence alone.

Leonid Bershidsky is the editor of Vedomosti.