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Olympic insecurity

Over the past few decades, we’ve all come to understand that there is a “new normal” when it comes to security.  We’ve watched 9/11, the London Metro bombings, and the Nairobi mall shooting in various stages of shock, denial, and finally numb acceptance.  In the next few weeks, the world’s attention will shift to Sochi, an obscure city in southern Russia set to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.  As the tragic events of the Munich Olympics in 1972 demonstrated, not even an event like the Olympics, meant to foster good feeling and peace among nations, is truly safe from those who wish to inflict harm upon others to make a point.

Russia isn’t necessarily having an easy go of things at the moment.  Besides the incredible cost of these Olympics, said to be around an Olympic record $50 billion, Russia has seen its public image take body blow after body blow in the run up to the games.  There has been broad condemnation of the country’s anti-homosexual legislation, with President Putin aggravating the situation with his startlingly tactless assurance that gays and lesbians would be welcome at the Olympics as long as they, “leave kids alone.”  Beyond just LGBT rights, however, Putin oversees a country that is seen as increasingly restrictive on free speech and democratic activity.  Neighboring Ukraine has been rocked by protests the past few months because of a perceived shift by its government to a more pro-Russian stance.  Many Ukrainians want a closer alignment with the democratic EU rather than its authoritarian neighbor to the east.  The modern Olympics bring with them a renewed scrutiny of the host country’s political situation, as China could attest to after its 2008 games.  But after two serious bombings by Chechen separatists in the past month, there are serious concerns about a terrorist attempt on the Sochi Games.

The history of Russia and its often tenuous connection to Chechnya is complicated.  The region was conquered by Russia after a long bloody campaign in the 19th century.  What followed was a series of insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, secessionist movements and deportations.  Things came to a head twice in the two wars that spanned from the early 1990’s to the late 2000’s.  Tens of thousands of Chechens were killed, along with thousands of Russians.  While relations between Russia and its territory have normalized somewhat in recent years, there are still many extremists who may seek to use the stage of the Olympic Games as spotlight for their cause.

The Olympic Games have been pointed to throughout their history as a beacon of human decency and cooperation amongst the usual strife of today’s world.  There have of course been stains on the Olympic legacy, from steroid-enhanced performances to the racial pageantry of the 1936 Berlin games.  The truly scary thing about this particular circumstance, at least to me, is an attack on these games would most likely be met with a collective weary sigh from the world.  The U.S. already has concrete evacuation plans for its contingent out if something goes wrong, and has openly talked about sharing some of its bomb-detecting technology with the Russian security forces.  Some athletes have already said that their families won’t be making the trip to Sochi.  That the world is holding its breath in the run up to the Olympics is a sad reminder of just how tenuous our hold on security is today.

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