Sunday, September 05, 2004

Tears are Not Enough

The columnist Mark Steyn has some thoughts about the schoolhouse terrorism in No other word for it but slaughter. It strikes me as a good walk-around look at the tragedy; analysis through indignation.

He scores many of the big media for refusing -- even in this most hideous example -- to call terrorism "terrorism." The New York Times used "guerrillas," and couldn't bring itself to write "Muslim" or "Islamist" in reference to the half of the killing squad that was Arab, not Chechen.

"Chechen separatists," ventured the BBC, eventually settling for "hostage-takers." "Insurgents," said The Guardian's Isabel Hilton, hyper-rational to a fault: "Today's hostage-taking," she explained, "is more savage, born of the spread of asymmetrical warfare that pits small, weak and irregular forces against powerful military machines. No insurgent lives long if he fights such overwhelming force directly ... If insurgent bullets cannot penetrate military armour, it makes little sense to shoot in that direction. Soft targets -– the unprotected, the innocent, the uninvolved -– become targets because they are available."

He rounds on Hilton. If "asymmetrical warfare" is to blame, if the little guys don't stand a chance beyond dynamiting schoolchildren, then how have the Iraqi rabble managed to turn the U.S. overthrow of Saddam into a "quagmire," as Hilton's editors and many other have pronounced it? No, it won't do.

When your asymmetrical warfare strategy depends on gunning down schoolchildren, you're getting way more asymmetrical than you need to be. The reality is that the IRA and ETA and the ANC and any number of secessionist and nationalist movements all the way back to the American revolutionaries could have seized schoolhouses and shot all the children.

But they didn't. Because, if they had, there would have been widespread revulsion within the perpetrators' own communities. To put it at its most tactful, that doesn't seem to be an issue here.

He point the finger squarely at the Saudis, as the ultimate authors of these abominations:

Wealthy Saudis –- including members of the royal family -– invested millions in setting up mosques and madrassas in what were traditionally spheres of a more accommodationist Islam, from the Balkans to South Asia, and successfully radicalised a generation of young Muslim men. It's the jihadist component –- not the asymmetrical one, not the secessionist one -– that accounts for the mound of undersized corpses, for the scale of the depravity.

But he doesn't spare the Russian leadership from a well-deserved scolding, but he keeps it in perspective:

If the Russian children are innocent, the Russian state is not. Its ham-fisted campaign in Chechnya is as brutal as it is ineffectual. The Muslims have a better case in Chechnya than they do in the West Bank, Kashmir or any of the other troublespots where the Islamic world rubs up against the infidels. But that said, as elsewhere, whatever the theoretical merits of the cause, it's been rotted from within by the Islamist psychosis.

Steyn manages, too, to find that rarest of birds, the moderate Muslim in the Middle East who is willing to stand up at a moment like this and be counted among the outraged, and the shamed:

Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the general manager of al-Arabiya Television, wrote a column in Asharq al-Awsat headlined, "The Painful Truth: All The World's Terrorists Are Muslims!" "Our terrorist sons are an end-product of our corrupted culture," he wrote.

There's a huge blogger row going on now over one of the leading liberal blogger's confession that he doesn't have an idea what can be done in cases like this. The proper reaction would be concessions by the Russians (he seems to say), but that's impossible, given what's just happened.

I don't see any way out for Russian policymakers nor any particularly good options for US policymakers. Partisanship and complaints about Bush's handling of counterterrorism aside, this business is a reminder not only of the horrors out there, but also that terrorism is a genuinely difficult problem -- I think we've been doing many of the wrong things lately, but no one should claim it's obvious what the right way to proceed is.

Steyn, without addressing this directly, says there is an answer, and that a tough plan is better than no plan. And it's essentially what America is trying to do right now in the Middle East.

What happened in one Russian schoolhouse is an abomination that has to be defeated, not merely regretted. But the only guys with any kind of plan are the Bush administration. Last Thursday, the President committed himself yet again to wholesale reform of the Muslim world. This is a dysfunctional region that exports its toxins, to Beslan, Bali and beyond, and is wealthy enough to be able to continue doing so.

You can't turn Saudi Arabia and Yemen into New Hampshire or Sweden (according to taste), but if you could transform them into Singapore or Papua New Guinea or Belize or just about anything else you'd be making an immense improvement. It's a long shot, but, unlike Putin's plan to bomb them Islamists into submission or Chirac's reflexive inclination to buy them off, Bush is at least tackling the "root cause."

If you've got a better idea, let's hear it. Right now, his is the only plan on the table. The ideology and rationale that drove the child-killers in Beslan is the same as that motivating cells in Rome and Manchester and Seattle and Sydney. In this war, you can't hold the line against the next depravity.