Newtown, Beslan, Ma’alot: Defending the Targeted School

As we mourn the victims of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, we might want to take a break from the seemingly endless and mindless discussion of the role of guns in this tragedy and consider a larger issue. One that has not made it to the pages and airwaves of the mainstream media and probably won’t until it is too late.

Beslan, a city in the Russian Federation, is five thousand miles from Newtown, Connecticut. But it is now connected to Newton by a similar tragedy: the invasion of a school and the wanton murder of children and adults.

On the first day of school in 2004, Islamist terrorists seized 1100 children and adults at the Beslan School Number One and herded them into a small gymnasium. The terrorists rigged the gym with mines and bombs. Two conspicuously large bombs were placed in the gym’s basketball hoops.

Children were made to stand in front of the gym’s windows as human shields. Periodically, the terrorists would fire their guns to further terrify the hostages.

Hours passed, the temperature climbed, and hostages began to faint. On the second day of the hostage-taking episode, children began dying of dehydration. Children and adults began stripping to stay cool and some people drank their own urine.

The gruesome scene was videotaped and a compliant and insensitive world media began broadcasting the footage. On the third day of the siege, Russian spetsnaz units stormed the school. Half-naked and bloodied hostages ran from the building.

The terrorists retreated to the school’s basement, where they were wiped out by the Russian troops in a horrendous gunfight. The gymnasium burned to the ground and the charred bodies of adults and children had to await DNA tests for identification. One terrorist had not retreated to the basement, and was later found by the Russian troops hiding under a truck. He told his captors that he would tell them whatever they wanted to know if they would not turn him over to the children’s parents.

The siege at the Beslan School left 311 people dead, of which 186 were children; some 700 people were injured. Neither time nor distance is a great healer in heart-wrenching events such as these. The survivors of Beslan, like survivors of all such episodes, continue to bear their psychological scars.

For years, I interviewed survivors of hostage and barricade situations. Precious few ever truly escape the lingering impact of the experience.