Your important moment of the day in U.S.-Russian relations occurred during Thursday's White House press briefing, when ITAR-TASS correspondent Andrei Sitov questioned Robert Gibbs about whether the shootings in Tucson, Ariz. were the "reverse side of freedom," and whether the "freedom of a deranged mind to react in a violent way" was quintessentially American. As you might expect, Gibbs objected to this characterization.
SITOV: First, my condolences to all the Americans, especially to the victims. But second, as to why it does not seem all that incomprehensible, at least from the outsider. It's the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want bigger role for the government --
GIBBS: Look, I think there's an investigation that's going to go on. Hold on, let me take my time back for a second. There's an investigation that's going to go on. I think as it goes on we will learn more and more about what happened. I think the President was clear last night, we may never know fully why or how. We may never have an understanding of why, as the President said, in the dark recesses of someone's mind, a violent person's mind, do actions like this spring forward. I don't want to surmise or think in the future of what some of that might be. But I think it's important to understand, as I said earlier, the event that was happening that day was the exercise of some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country. The freedom of speech. The freedom to assemble. The freedom to petition your government. Democracy, or form of self-government that is of, by, and for the people. all very quintessential American values that have been on display, along with tremendous courage and resilience of those in the community, and throughout this country, but have had to deal with this tragedy.
SITOV: This is what I was talking about, exactly this. This is America. The democracy, the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly, the freedom to petition your government. Many people outside would also say, and they quote unquote freedom of a deranged mind to react in a violent way it is also American. How do you respond to that?
GIBBS: What's the last part?
SITOV: They quote unquote freedom of the deranged mind to react violently to them, it is also American.
GIBBS: No. I would disagree vehemently with that. There are -- there is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with, but exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American. I think there's agreement on all sides of the political spectrum, violence is never, ever acceptable. We had people that died. We had people whose lives will be changed forever, because of the deranged actions of a madman. Those are not American. Those are not in keeping with the important bedrock values by which this country was founded, and by which its citizens live each and every day of their lives, in hopes of something better for those that are here.
Hey, remember back in September of 2004, when Chechen separatists took hostages at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania? There was a standoff, and it finally ended when Russian forces stormed the school, with tanks and rockets. About 400 people died. As Yuri Kozyrev reported for Time Magazine, in the aftermath, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was quick to put Sitov's suggestion into play:
Putin wasted no time declaring he would crack down even harder rather than negotiate a political solution to the Chechen conflict. In his televised speech on Saturday, he paraphrased Stalin: "We have shown weakness. The weak ones get beaten." With the Kremlin claiming that nine of the terrorists in Beslan were of Arab descent -- something independent observers have not yet been able to confirm -- Putin blamed the crisis on the "direct intervention of international terrorism" aimed at breaking up Russia. He promised a new "set of measures to reinforce the country's unity," as well as tougher rule in the Caucasus and a new "crisis management system" that would enhance the powers of the security services. Some observers, including senior officers in the security services, worried that these new measures could be used to further enhance Putin's power, entrenching the country ever deeper in his authoritarian rule.
Here's a fun fact about the aftermath, from your Wikipedia:
Increased security measures were introduced to Russian cities. More than 10,000 people without proper documents were detained by Moscow police in a "terrorist hunt". Colonel Magomed Tolboyev, a cosmonaut and Hero of the Russian Federation, was attacked by Moscow police patrol and beaten because of his Chechen-sounding name.
Quote Stalin and consolidate power? Beat up a hero cosmonaut in the ensuing, crazy witch hunt because of his name? Cheery stuff. Does is speak to the national character of Russia? Who's to say that some enhanced personal freedoms couldn't have prevented the Beslan crisis from happening? Just asking, not lecturing.
And hey, not to give Sitov more ammunition, but I'm happy to point out our own little "Thomas Friedman wants the Iraqi people to suck on this" misadventure in Mesopotamia. I guess what I'm saying is this: I'm no historian, but based upon what little I've learned, I've found it difficult to identify the nation or culture that's truly cornered the market on atrocity.
To lighten the mood, here's a more comedic way of making this point: