Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bombings in Russia: When Disaster Strikes

Overcoming Breakdowns, Preparing for Breakthroughs

The recent bombings in Russia by female suicide bombers should give us all reason to pause: how is it possible that women—people we count on to hold together civil society, to be the voice of reason against violence and aggression, to continue to be mothers, wives, and daughters, even when it’s most difficult—were the perpetrators of such a deadly attack on civilians in the heart of Moscow? How do we, as a female counterterrorism platform, respond to such brutality?

Women have increasingly become part of militant operations worldwide. Female suicide bombers are highly effective because they do not fit in with commonly-held ideas about terrorists are what they look like. They easily pass through police checkpoints when others might be stopped, and even traditional garments from dresses to abayas can help hide the presence of a discreetly-worn belt of explosives.

What is most striking about these female suicide bombers, which Russian authorities have presumed to be part of the “Black Widows,” a long-standing terrorist group from Chechnya, Russia, is that they claim to act for personal reasons. The “Black Widows” claim to act in response to the murder of their husbands, sons, and brothers by ethnic Russians. These women are not driven primarily by religious affiliation or for political gain, although those factors have certainly played a crucial role in determining the circumstances under which the Black Widows’ husbands were killed. They were driven by a desire for revenge—a personal action taken to redress a personal grievance.

Just as “the personal” emotions of grief, anger, loss, and powerlessness led these women to commit a senseless act against innocent bystanders, so too can “the personal” lead us to working towards a solution. SAVE seeks to reach out to women affected by violent extremism, whether it is women affected by the loss of a family member or friend to a terrorist attack or women who see the people in her life becoming radicalized by forces within society, to empower them to respond to these threats through smart power: constructive deterrence. Our ability to stem the rising tide of violent extremism lies in our ability to reach women on emotional and cognitive levels and to appeal to their sense of reason, of hope, of faith in mankind, and to empower these women to respond to radical forces in non-violent ways.

Radicalization and violent extremism can be born of geopolitical issues, but they can also be born of personal emotions, like accumulated grief, humiliation, and despair. At SAVE, we also seek to tap into the personal, but to achieve an emotional breakthrough, not an emotional breakdown. Strategies like storytelling and relationship-building over cultural, religious, and ethnic divides wed the emotional and cognitive together. In these and other efforts, we try to bring women to a level at which they forge an emotional and cognitive attachment to non-violence and learn to express their anger, fears, and concerns in ways that strengthen families and civil society, rather than tearing them down.

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