Condemnation is a luxury we can afford

Are we right, when faced with atrocity, simply to compete in voicing expressions of denunciation and outrage? Do all attempts to understand the motives of the perpetrators, or to reflect on what drove them to act so abominably, risk moral equivalence and compromise our own humanity? Certainly, no reasonable person can attempt to excuse what happened in Beslan. The Archbishop of Canterbury rightly describes the mass killing of children as "the most evil kind of action we can imagine". All very well to point out that, even as the world watched the ghastly climax of the school siege in north Ossetia, around 4,000 more children across the world died for lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. Or to observe that western sanctions on Iraq led, according to some estimates, to the deaths of half a million children. Or to enumerate, from Hiroshima through Vietnam to the latest Gulf war, the occasions when the US has killed indiscriminately from the air. What set Beslan apart, as the archbishop suggested, was that people not only calculated that the deaths of children in particular would serve their purpose, but that they could sit with them for days, deliberately denying them water, watching the terror in their eyes, ignoring their cries.

At this stage, we have to acknowledge profound moral ambiguities. First, if the terrorists wished to raise awareness of their cause, their calculation was undeniably right. Three or four hundred deaths in a Russian office block might detain the western media for a day or two. Children, however, will still make the front pages of the British tabloids nearly a week after the event. Millions across the world who may never before have heard of Chechnya now know about the 100,000 or more deaths in its decade of wars; about the "black widows" who have lost husbands and children and turned to suicide bombing; about the rapes and humiliations inflicted by Russian troops; about the ruined buildings of Grozny; about the 70 per cent unemployment. They may even learn a little about the Chechens' history and about how Stalin once forcibly moved a third of them to Siberia. Here is the heart of the case of those who deplore attempts to "understand" and "contextualise". In doing so, in going beyond simple expressions of horror, they argue, we may give terrorists the recognition and sympathy they crave.

But we must then turn to a second question. Powerful states can achieve their ends through other means, and if they kill, they do so at a distance. George W Bush, Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and Ariel Sharon do not need to look into the eyes of Iraqi or Chechen or Palestinian children as they are bombed, gunned down or blown to pieces by landmines. Nor, with rare exceptions, do their soldiers and airmen. The more advanced the military technology, the more it is possible to sanitise killing, to disclaim direct responsibility, to call a child's death collateral damage. The rich and powerful have no motives for dirtying their hands. A Chechen child is no more likely to wake up and find President Putin pointing a gun at her head than you are to find the chief executive of Enron running off with your DVD player in the middle of the night. Each has (or had) other ways of getting what he wants. Only the weak have to plumb the moral depths.

To those depths, there appear to be no limits. However insouciant most of us are about African children starving to death, few of us could kill a child at close quarters. Still fewer would glory in it. Yet the Beslan hostage-takers not only staged their acts deliberately as a media event, but also took photographs of their terrified captives. In the same way, US soldiers took pictures of their torture victims in Abu Ghraib prison. Once, the instincts of people who did terrible things were to destroy the evidence; even the Nazis tried to cover up the Holocaust. Now, depravity shows its face proudly to the world, partly as a kind of existential statement, partly as another branch of the public relations industry. My grievance must be greater than yours, people seem to say, because I will go to greater lengths in pursuit of it. Just as other sections of the media industry resort to ever greater sensation to command attention - bigger newspaper headlines, more violent films, more pornographic advertisements, more intimate reality TV - so now do terrorists.

Thus, brutality breeds brutality - a perfectly obvious point, but one worth restating all the same. Just as the intensive US bombing of Cambodia bred the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and the killing fields, so a decade of Russian-instigated wars in Chechnya bred suicide bombers, plane hijackers and hostage-takers. Let us condemn them by all means. In our comfortable, secure world, it is a luxury we can afford.

Unity in a time of crisis

Is it not time for a government of national unity? This solution is often proposed at times of strife and uncertainty when the nation seems under economic strain or external threat. As Britain faces not only possible terrorist attacks but falling house prices, this is surely just such a time. Petty party advantage and old enmities should be put to one side. We need people with long, recent experience of office - seven years and four months would be about right - who can combine boldness and prudence, conscience and purpose. Differences over foundation hospitals, top-up fees and disability benefits can surely, for the good of the country, easily be resolved. The big question is which party leader should be PM and which chancellor. Perhaps this is best resolved by the Queen - or if she doesn't feel up to it, one of her rugby-playing grandsons - taking the two men into a dungeon at Windsor Castle and banging their heads together.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Can Islam change?