Children make it different. Like the tragedies of Columbine in the US and Dunblane in Scotland, the terror that stalks the classrooms of besieged Middle School 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia, is uniquely disturbing.
Who in these torrid days of random, global violence has not become accustomed, even inured, to the suicide bombings in Iraq or a host of other troublespots? Yet who, anywhere in the world, is not touched, angered or frightened -- or all three -- by the thought of young kids traumatized by masked killers wearing bomb-belts?
When the victims are children, the sort of horror on show in Beslan, real or threatened, represents the adult world's ultimate betrayal of innocence, its final failure to nurture and protect. Here is a shared disgrace, borne of a universal grief. Here is an international crying shame, beseeching an urgent remedy.
The Chechen conflict, in which the Ossetian siege is inextricably bound up, has become internationalized in many other ways since it reignited, in its modern incarnation, in the early 1990s. Like Czechoslovakia in a different time, the Caucasian lands of Chechnya, North and South Ossetia, Ingushetia and Dagestan cannot be dismissed as distant countries of which we know little and care less. What happens there matters in the West.
"Their suffering is our suffering," Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, said on Friday. "The awesome responsibility of [Rusian] President Putin and his government is our responsibility, too."
The mere fact of non-stop international media coverage makes Beslan school a shared reality around the world. The inescapable fact that the Chechen conflict once again pits Muslim peoples against Christians or plain non-believers, setting "Islam" against the "West," sounds an only too familiar post-9/11 global echo.
Putin pins the blame for the escalating crisis, perhaps the gravest of his presidency, not on home-grown Chechen fighters but, primarily, on an international Islamist conspiracy linked to al-Qaeda.
The evidence for his contention is thin and often contradictory. But one thing is undoubtedly true. Since plunging recklessly back into Chechnya in 1994, Putin, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, and the once proud Red Army have caused such untold misery, such rank injustice, such fury and despair that, like the Americans in Iraq, they created a breeding ground and magnet for the religious extremists they struggle to extirpate.
In effect, it was Russian generals and their turncoat allies who internationalized a war that should never have begun and which could have been peaceably resolved long ago. For this foolishness, Russia's conscript soldiers still pay a terrible price.
The risk of a spreading, regional conflagration grows with every outrage, every unanswered act of blood -- and with every broken child.
Since the time of the tsars, the mountain tribes of the Caucasus have fought for land, faith and just for the hell of it. In A Hero Of Our Time, novelist Mikhail Lermontov wrote admiringly in 1840 of the bravery of his opponents along Russia's lawless southern flank.
But now Caucasian instability threatens ever more broadly. Neighboring Georgia, home to last November's "rose revolution," is no model of stability. And by coincidence, the Beslan siege has forced the postponement of a presidential visit to Turkey, Russia's historic Ottoman rival. Putin wants to build up trade and other links. But primarily, he needs Turkey as a southern bulwark of stability and security in a region sliding dangerously beyond Moscow's control.
Ten long years of destructive, on-off conflict, egregious human rights abuses, massive refugee displacements and blatant flouting of international law have also rendered Chechnya a matter of undeniable international concern. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the OSCE have kept a brave and faithful tally of the human toll and political cost of Russia's heedless policy. Again and again, campaigners have lobbied western governments to draw a diplomatic line, to sponsor a political process, to honestly recognize Chechnya for what it ever more evidently is -- a threat to international peace and security, as defined by the UN.
When UK Prime Minister Tony Blair talks of Britain's "moral responsibility" in Darfur and Iraq; when he speaks, as most famously in Chicago in 1999, of the criteria for intervention; when he sends troops dashing off to Kabul and Freetown, where in all this is there a thought for Chechnya? Ten years of conflict, tens of thousands dead and no end remotely in sight.
Russia has always maintained that the Chechen conflict is an internal matter, to be resolved internally. But now that Putin, by effectivelyasking for international support, has for the first time invited the security council to consider the issue, Western leaders have a clear choice.
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