Today we grieve. Tomorrow we must act

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The Independent Online

The carnage in Beslan was a horror beyond the capacity of the human soul to comprehend. Children and their parents suffered a terror beyond the capacity of journalism to convey. The hostage-takers committed crimes beyond the capacity of any judicial or spiritual authority adequately to condemn. It may in some quarters be regarded as too soon to be considering the implications of what happened in North Ossetia on Friday. Some of the details of what happened in School No 1 are still confused; and emotions are still raw, as shown by the sharp response from the Russian government to yesterday's mild enquiry by the Dutch Foreign Minister on behalf of the European Union. But it cannot be enough simply to condemn the wickedness of the hostage-takers and to offer sympathy and aid to the survivors.

The carnage in Beslan was a horror beyond the capacity of the human soul to comprehend. Children and their parents suffered a terror beyond the capacity of journalism to convey. The hostage-takers committed crimes beyond the capacity of any judicial or spiritual authority adequately to condemn. It may in some quarters be regarded as too soon to be considering the implications of what happened in North Ossetia on Friday. Some of the details of what happened in School No 1 are still confused; and emotions are still raw, as shown by the sharp response from the Russian government to yesterday's mild enquiry by the Dutch Foreign Minister on behalf of the European Union. But it cannot be enough simply to condemn the wickedness of the hostage-takers and to offer sympathy and aid to the survivors.

The bloody hostage-taking must rank as the most appalling act of terrorism since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, almost three years ago. The United States and the world are still recoiling from those massacres, and Friday's catastrophe is likely to have a similar effect on both Russia and the rest of the globe. All the more important, therefore, that the governments of the world avoid making the mistakes that were made after 9/11, which were essentially the same mistakes that the Russians have made in past responses to Chechen terrorism. The classic and understandable response to terrorist atrocities is, as George Bush put it in his speech to the Republican convention last week, "whatever it takes". And it is the right response. The trouble is that it is too often taken to mean overwhelming force and brutal repression. These usually serve to further the terrorists' objective of provoking governments into overreactions that cut the ground from under the feet of moderates. The Tamil Tigers assassinated the constitutional advocates of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka. Chechen extremists did not need to pursue that policy: Vladimir Putin's violent crushing of the separatist movement, on which he built his presidency, did it for them.

A more intelligent interpretation of "whatever it takes" must look to the underlying conditions in which terrorism thrives and face the sometimes painful difficulty of appearing to reward violence by addressing its causes. That is what, to her credit and despite her rhetoric, Margaret Thatcher did by opening a dialogue with Irish republicans. The process is not complete, but terrorist killings in Northern Ireland have ceased. Mr Putin - to his credit and despite his rhetoric - has made tentative and secretive steps towards a similar dialogue with those weakened elements of Chechen separatism that are prepared to negotiate. But he is under pressure from a Russian nationalism still wounded by the break-up of the USSR, a pressure that will be intensified by Friday's death toll.

The simplistic language of the "war on terror" is therefore profoundly unhelpful. To equate Chechen nationalism with the apocalyptic nihilism of Osama bin Laden does nothing to advance the security of Russian citizens. The Russian people are not in the same position as the American. The US cannot negotiate with Al-Qa'ida; its grievance is with modernity. But the Russians can hope to lessen gradually the grievances of the Chechens on which terrorism feeds. And the Russians, more than the Americans, are in daily danger. The horror of Beslan immediately diminished the more familiar but equally terrible stories of explosions on the Moscow metro and aeroplanes bombed out of the sky.

Yes, the most desperate and extreme Chechens have adopted the ideology of perverted Islam and the methods of suicide terrorism. But, at many removes from the evil of Beslan and now further tainted by it, the cause of the Chechen people remains a legitimate one. Unless Mr Putin continues to inch towards recognising this, his strongman rhetoric yesterday only risks perpetuating the dialectic of violence, in which terrorism provokes repression which increases support for terrorism.

The hardest part of beginning any peace process, whether in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Palestine or Chechnya, is to bring the terrorised majority and the grievance-laden extremists to understand, simultaneously, that their interests lie in scaling down the violence of their responses to each other. Now may not be the best time to remind the Russians of this truth, but Russia's friends must seek their opportunities in the months to come.

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