WE SHOULD BE CHEERING THEM through our tears. To witness the Chechens defending their tiny homeland against the second-mightiest military machine on earth should make our hearts race with exhilaration, even as the barbarity of the Russian attacks ought to make us weep with rage. Why are we unmoved?
It is not as if we don't see what is happening. The ghastly pictures are on our television screens at night, and the wrenching reports are in the newspapers the next morning. Russian warplanes bomb Chechnya's capital, Grozny, into heaps of smoking debris. Russian machine guns slice through refugees frantically trying to escape to the mountains. Russian nail bombs -- explosives filled with inch-and-a-half iron shards designed to inflict maximum pain by ripping jagged holes through human flesh -- mutilate their victims' bodies. Russian generals and Russia's unstable, potvaliant president are turning Chechen children into bleeding carcasses, food for stray dogs.
When will we erupt in horror? When will the conscience of America, revolted by such brutality, demand that the carnage stop?
This is not, as Moscow says, reviving a phrase from the old Soviet lexicon, an "internal affair." Chechnya is not Russia. Its democratically elected president is not a "rebel leader." Chechens became Russian the way Tibetans became Chinese -- they were conquered by a rapacious empire that has violently repressed them ever since. For a century and a half, the czars and the commissars have inflicted bottomless savagery on the Chechens, but they haven't broken them yet. Nor assimilated them: The Chechens' language isn't Russian. Their names aren't Russian. Their religion isn't Russian. Their past isn't Russian, and they don't want a Russian future.
Internal affair? God forbid! Moscow's demented slaughter in Grozny, where helicopter gunships mow down grandmothers, is a crime against humanity. On CNN the other night, a small boy stared in shock at the bloody stumps where his hands had just been blown off. What type of internal affair is that? Where are our voices? Where is our fury?
Where are the rallies on Boston Common and the Washington Mall and the UN Plaza? Where are the full-page ads filled with the outrage of eminent men and women? Where are the vigils outside the Russian Embassy? The impassioned pleas that Congress cut off all aid to Moscow until the vicious campaign in Chechnya is halted?
Don't we care that Russia has returned to naked gangsterism? That Moscow is once again ruled by men with blood in their eye and murder on their minds? That Boris Yeltsin, who once climbed aboard a tank to face down dictators, is now in league with dictators?
Having learned nothing from the failures of their predecessors, President Clinton and Secretary of State Warren Christopher refuse to denounce the butchery in Grozny. They kept quiet last year as Yeltsin's troops made war in Abkhazia, ethnically cleansing it of its Georgian majority. They kept quiet as Russian troops moved into Tajikistan, as Moscow's secret police assumed ominous new powers, as every important democrat was swept from Yeltsin's Cabinet. They continue to make excuses for Yeltsin even now, convinced he is all that stands between Russia's shaky regime and dictatorship.
Welcome to Bush-Baker II. It wasn't so long ago that Mikhail Gorbachev turned his back on democracy and reform. Then as now, the US president and secretary of state would not speak out. As Gorbachev reverted to Stalinism, George Bush and James Baker remained silent. Silent when Soviet troops gassed peaceful protesters to death in Tbilisi in 1989. Silent when scores of Azerbaijanis were murdered in 1990. Silent when Lithuania was strangled with a quarantine, cutting off its food, fuel and medicine.
Washington's reticence only emboldened Gorbachev. When the little Baltic states wouldn't renounce their independence, he sent in his "black berets" to commit homicide in the streets of Vilnius and Riga. The fruits of American silence and appeasement then were dead Lithuanians and Latvians. The fruits of American silence now are being harvested in Grozny.
And we can't be bothered. The antiapartheid activists who raised such a cry against South Africa's wicked policies -- they are nowhere to be seen. The fierce Cold Warriors who rallied to the aid of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and Solidarity in Poland and the Contras in Nicaragua -- nowhere. The devoted friends of Israel, so fervent when it comes to Israel's need for security, so tormented when Saddam Hussein fired a few Scuds at Tel Aviv -- nowhere. The Black Congressional Caucus, so distraught over human rights violations in Haiti that it wanted the US Marines, no less, sent in to stop them - nowhere.
If Russia was slaughtering elephants in Chechnya -- hunting them with tanks, mortars, and machine guns, setting forests on fire to burn them alive, sending in warplanes to bomb them to pulp -- Americans, horrified at such cruelty and evil, would be aflame with protest.
But the Chechens aren't elephants. Too bad for them.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)