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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lessons in Passing the Buck

Speaking in Belgium, President Vladimir Putin explained to European politicians, softened by many years of peace, that you needn't worry too much about civilian casualties when going to war. The rich experience of the Chechen campaign taught the president that innocent civilians inevitably suffer when you do battle with terrorists, but that blame for this can be apportioned to the terrorists. Western politicians listened and apparently liked this line of thought.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, a multitude of experts, pundits and politicians are all repeating the same line: Now the West will review its attitude toward Chechnya, now they will understand us. Finally they will abandon their double standards. Although it is not said exactly what the West should approve of, it is implicitly stated that the West should jettison its annoying ideas about human rights. Or to be more specific: The West needs to understand that human rights only apply to white-skinned Christians and that applying such European inventions to Muslims and other enemies of civilization is a "double standard."

The state should be entrusted with a license to kill; moreover, without trial or investigation. While terrorists used to be considered those who attack civilians, now any innocent civilian in proximity to a terrorist not only forfeits his right to protection by the state, but can also be killed by the state in the name of the "common cause."

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By adopting such an approach, the dividing line between terrorists and a state's armed forces ceases to exist. However, there is still a difference: Due to better arms and numerical superiority, an army can kill many more innocent civilians than the world's terrorists combined. And on top of that, all the blame falls squarely on the terrorists' shoulders.

This greatly simplifies the work of law enforcement agencies. Previously, for example, hostages had to be freed, putting at risk the lives of special forces operatives. Now, they can quietly be wiped out along with the terrorists.

Sadly, Western civilization's newfound defenders correctly divined a trend that is strengthening in the West. Putin's words struck a chord with many in Europe and even more in the United States. During the Balkan conflict, military propagandists coined the phrase "collateral damage." This means that casualties among civilian populations do not count, so to speak, if they are unpremeditated, i.e. we're the good guys, so if we killed some innocent people, well, we didn't do it on purpose. The bad guys, on the other hand, are being bad intentionally. In Chechnya, collateral damage accounts for tens of thousands of lives; in Iraq, the trade embargo has probably taken hundreds of thousands of lives. In Chechnya the war is not against innocent civilians but against Shamil Basayev and Khattab. The Iraqi people are not the target of the embargo, only Saddam Hussein. The tragedy is that innocent civilians are dying in droves, while Basaev, Khattab and Saddam continue to thrive.

War does not come without casualties, and losses among civilian populations are unavoidable. For precisely this reason any responsible politician should do everything within his power to avoid resorting to force.

However, justifying civilian casualties in advance and giving the military carte blanche to commit war crimes is not only amoral and irresponsible, but also politically shortsighted. By relieving the military of blame, politicians transfer it to themselves. This already happened in the Third Reich, and the Nuremberg Trial dealt with the consequences.

While Arab countries have been trying (in their own interests) to discourage Western leaders from rash actions, Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union have come out in support of the harshest of measures. They seem to adhere to the logic that the more blood spilled and the more brutally the West behaves, the easier it will be for them to justify the horrors that occur at home.

Political expediency does not always coincide with moral principals. And Putin's position remains shortsighted. The experience of contemporary Russia teaches us just how futile and ineffective reliance on the unlimited use of force is.

The victors are rarely indicted for war crimes. However, not even a very powerful army can always win, and for this reason political responsibility comes into the equation sooner or later. The new crusade has been proclaimed in the name of democratic principals, but it seems that it will end up going precisely against these principals. So, it seems that it is not just from terrorists that freedom must be safeguarded.

Boris Kagarlitsky is a Moscow-based sociologist.