Hundreds of children dead. Hundreds missing. Children bayoneted for requesting a drink. Children shot in the back as they fled. Does the word "evildoers" still seem so laughably simplistic?
Do the terms guerrilla and "militant" and "gunmen" and every other wire-service euphemisms for Islamist terrorists rise to the challenge of describing the depravities of Beslan?
Even the word "terrorist" seems inadequate nowadays, drained of its dread through overuse. "Monsters" or "devils" would be more apt, but it's wrong to dehumanize the men and women who committed this barbarity. Even dogs know other dogs are dogs. These people don't see others as people at all, but animate meat in thrall to the wrong god. Better off dead, really. And you get gold stars in Paradise for pulling the trigger. How do you vanquish such people?
Nuke Chechnya, some shout. Sure, that'll work. In a sense, it would "no man, no problem," as a glinty-eyed nasty Georgian once put it. But if anything, Russia's war against terrorism shows the limit of force. Neither world or domestic opinion has heretofore kept Russia from flattening Chechnya into a mist of atomized concrete and pulverized bone.
Americans build bombs that take down government buildings and leave the hospital down the block intact. Russians level the entire block and the next and the next for good measure. The Before and After pictures of Grozny look like the difference between an aerial photo of a thriving city and a snapshot of the Moon from an orbiting Apollo. What else can Vladimir Putin do?
Whatever he does, it won't be pretty. Paranoids on the left and right accuse George W. Bush of using Sept. 11 as a pretext to suspend civil liberties but if they want to see the real thing, look at Putin.
Watch Russia. Watch as the rest of the Russian Federation gets more tightly bound to the man in the Kremlin; the courts, the media, and the corporations will continue their consolidation into a tightly controlled state. Civility at the core, brutality in the outlands. Fascism without the shouting or silly symbols, but the real thing nonetheless.
Here at home, some still fail to see the shape of the new century, stuck as they are in the comfy delusions reinforced by the periodicals and cocktail party chatter.
As American playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, quoted in the National Review online, recently said:
"Part of the problem presented by Bush and his gang is that they are so crude. ... These people believe in cruelty, vengeance and brutality. The American government in my lifetime has never been in the hands of people so unbelievably unqualified to run a large country. These guys are out of touch with reality. The most shocking thing about them is that they have only a contempt for the law. That means that they could and probably will do anything.
"This is the scariest I've known it. Part of the problem with these men is that their sensitivities have never been shaped by any civilization, of East or West or even the wisdom of primitive cultures."
Ah, the wisdom of primitive cultures. If Condi Rice played a log drum instead of a piano, if Bush worshipped the Sun and fed it fresh hearts every eclipse; if Don Rumsfeld did his press conferences slathered with blue mud and demanding that everyone bow to the Tree Sprites. "The wisdom of primitive cultures." It truly takes the product of an advanced culture to utter such drivel.
If these are the words Shawn has for the administration, what words are left for the men who smile as they gun down the children? Or autocrats who truly want to turn the state into a private gang? Think of Shawn's words after the next Belsan. It'll be in Jakarta. Or in some small community outside of London unheralded until its name joins the list of places known only for their pain. Or in Des Moines.
When it happens in America we might consult again the thinkers and artists and legions of leisured chin-pullers, and ask how they spent the days after Sept. 11. What they wrote. Whom they opposed. Why they could not name the enemy, when the enemy had so clearly named them.
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JWR contributor James Lileks is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.