Why? This versatile little word is tirelessly employed at the times when people are confronted with horrors or tragedies for which there are no logical explanations and no correct answers. The bereaved of Beslan, quite naturally, want an answer to this question. Profound and existential, it is asked most desperately at times when random, inexplicable nightmares descend. In other words, at times when there is no answer to why.
In the case of Beslan, and in the case of all terrorist atrocities, there is never an answer, not at a personal level anyway. The perpetrators are linked to a cause, but the victims need have had no involvement with opposing that cause. The targeting of children at a school indeed suggests that for the terrorists who planned the Beslan atrocity, it was important that their victims had the smallest possible knowledge of, or involvement with, the cause they purportedly espoused.
The events inside Middle School Number 1 were designed, above all, to confound logic. Terrorism is by definition randomly brutal. But this latest massacre, more randomly brutal than any before it, surely goes beyond terrorism, and becomes sheer nihilism. In recent years, terrorists have even become cavalier about the political ends they expect their actions to achieve. Those who besieged this ordinary school changed their demands as time went on. Their political ambitions were hazy, generalised and all too abstract.
Insofar as they had any of the latter, their actions have further damaged their cause, rather than advancing it. They have attracted attention to the situation in Chechnya, but the publicity is so adverse that many people who had previously felt sympathy will no longer support its demands for full self-determination. They have further closed down the possibility of a political solution, rather than advancing it. All they have inspired is worldwide condemnation and repulsion.
It is as if the media attention has, in itself, become the end. Those who planned and perpetrated this monstrous deed must have calculated that it would eclipse the abhorrence felt against any previous attack, even 11 September 2001, and that as such it would become a focus of the world's media to a greater degree than any previous Chechen outrage. In that respect the Chechen terrorists have aided Vladimir Putin greatly. He wishes to tie Chechen terrorism to al-Qa'ida terrorism. The magnitude of this attack and its vast, inhuman ambit, has done the job for him.
Now, at last, the ongoing Chechen situation is moving into the media spotlight as it never has before. In more powerful terms than ever as well, it is being practically linked into a wider pattern of terrorist activity around the world. Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, an Arab television executive, has pointed out that: "It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslim." His brave statement of the obvious - that the radical preachers who infect young Muslims with a hateful radicalism must be tackled - has been heralded as a breakthrough statement. The press is full of rhetoric about how things could be different after Beslan. Yet already his words are being co-opted into the same old debate in the Western media, whose battlelines were drawn in the emotional hours after the 11 September atrocities.
Perhaps some of the thousands of friends and relatives mourning their lost loved ones will find comfort in the conventional answers that they will be offered by the world's media. These, despite the complexity of the issues raised by such huge, escalating, calculated massacres, fall into two main categories. Each new insight or piece of information is grabbed at by commentators feeding their own agendas like a tank full of hungry fish. …