We are suddenly having a crash course on Chechnya.  Chechnya is old news to Russians, though.   The Cossacks began to encroach on the Caucasus, the mountainous region southeast of Moscow, in between the Black and Caspian Seas, in the 18th century.  Catherine the Great invaded the region.  At the end of the 20th century, Russia was still fighting there.

            Pushkin wrote a verse fairy tale in 1833 titled “The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights”, his version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  He describes the daytime diversions of the knights:  the brothers would ride out to “Ply their sword in battle / And a Saracen unsaddle, / Headlong at a Tartar go, / Chop his head off at a blow, / Or give chase to a Circassian, / From the forest send him dashing”  (translation Michael Terletski).  They were doing battle with Chechens and their neighbors.

            Tolstoy’s short story of 1872, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus”, describes a young Russian officer’s captivity and eventual escape from his “Tartar” (Chechen) captors.   Sergei Bodrov develops and deepens this story in his powerful film, “Prisoner of the Mountains”, nominated for an Oscar in 1997.

            A Russian friend has given me an earful about Chechens, many of whom trade in Moscow.  She has nothing nice to say about them.  This is no surprise, given recent history.  In 2002, 130 hostages and the 40 Chechens who held them died in a police raid on a movie theater in Moscow.   Two years later, a rural school in Beslan was captured by Chechen terrorists who held 1,100 people; 330 of these, mostly children, died when troops stormed the school after two days.   To her, Chechens are hardly human.

            Her anger is understandable and necessary.  But the problem with identifying the “Other” as evil is that this justifies anything we do in the name of defeating evil.  It cannot be evil to kill those who are less than human.   This came home recently when I visited a private museum of historical photos of the Philippine revolt against Spanish colonial rule and then American occupation.

            I saw shocking photos from the early 1900s of American soldiers posing proudly above trenches filled with men, women and children whom they had just slaughtered in a village.   “Déjà vu all over again” – some of these soldiers had fought in the Indian wars, and in 1968 the scene was repeated in My Lai, Vietnam.

            “The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than dog.”  (Philadelphia Ledger, November, 1901).  A soldier from New York wrote:  “I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.”

            Genocide, war crimes, acts of terrorism are possible only when we can reduce the other to less than human, when we no longer see “that of God” in the other.