The collective gasp heard around the world after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is a recognition that what just happened is different. Civilian casualties in war zones are, unfortunately, all too common, sometimes outpacing the deaths of combatants. But this wanton act of shooting down a civilian airliner falls under a whole new category of terror.
What is it that has changed? Russia.
The international community has a name for the type of state that Russia has become under Vladimir Putin’s reign: A state sponsor of terror.
The U.S State Department has four countries on that list: Sudan, designated on Aug. 12, 1993; Iran, Jan. 19, 1984; Cuba, March 1, 1982; and Syria, designated on Dec. 29, 1979.
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As Western nations, NATO allies and the international community consider what actions to take in the coming weeks, Secretary of State John Kerry must consider categorizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism if Moscow’s fingerprints are found on this reprehensible act.
The official label is given to countries that have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” Given the actions Russia has taken and the individuals and groups it supports, the category is accurate.
This is not how things were supposed to work out with Russia. At the end of the Cold War and despite a dysfunctional and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin at the helm in the early post-Soviet era, there was hope that Russia would be able to harmonize its economic and political culture with its roots in the West, and also grow its institutions and leadership – with help from the United States and the European Union – based on shared values of human dignity and rights.
There were early indications that this was a possibility, whether it was President George W. Bush’s rosy assessment of Putin’s soul, or the bet we made as a country in the reform potential of President Dmitry Medvedev.
But Putin II changed all that. His illegitimate claim to absolute power and absolute stifling of political dissent were early indications of his evil intent, stewed in nationalist flavors.
Yes, it is a good idea to keep calm, to wait for the facts and take a deep breath – on both sides. Putin, too, needs to harness his defensive reactions and withhold his instincts to blame the victim and spin reality.
Take a hard look at what has just happened, and it is clear that the events he and his cronies set in motion – regardless of who pulled the trigger of this highly sophisticated weapon – are to blame. Try as he will to distance himself from the consequences of the Malaysian airliner tragedy, he will always be guilty of creating the conditions in eastern Ukraine and enabling the criminal terrorists to act.
Something bad was always bound to happen. What is surprising is that it took 298 innocent lives in deaths reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”: “Out of thin air: a big bang, followed by falling stars. A universal beginning, a miniature echo of the birth of time ... the jumbo jet ... blew apart without any warning.”
We are now all stunned, no longer gasping, but holding our breaths, uncertain as to what will unfold in the international drama between nations that practice tit-for-tat and where justice is not always achievable and peace is sometimes exceptionally elusive.
President Barack Obama and everyone around him are using careful language to talk about the crisis, making sure not to raise the rhetorical temperature or commit America to actions it cannot execute. That relative calm and quiet in the world’s capitals is not reflective of the outrage that surely occupies their offices, but it is reassuring to know that a deliberative and cautious approach is guiding decision-making at this critical juncture.
Cool heads are necessary. The heat of the moment needs to pass. And the consequences need to be meted out with measured justification and wisdom.
But the one thing that has changed, and will remain true regardless of what punitive actions are taken, is that Russia is now a full-fledged – if not yet officially named – state sponsor of terror.