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"The Unmentionable Odor of Death"

From the September 9, 2004 Financial Times: The world's reaction to Beslan is cause for concern in its own right.

10:00 AM, Sep 9, 2004 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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The unmentionable odor of death

Offends the September night

-W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

AND SO IT DOES, once again. Three years ago, the terrorists attacked symbols of U.S. strength. Last week, they struck at the children of School No. 1 in Beslan. In between, the forces of barbarism, holding high the banner of jihad, have murdered innocents from Bali to Istanbul, from Jerusalem to Madrid, Falluja and beyond. Will the forces of civilization be found wanting in the struggle against terror?

Perhaps. They were, after all, often found wanting in the last century. The 20th century spawned the twin evils of totalitarianism and genocide, and the civilized world was slow to respond. We confronted Hitler too late, and Stalin not at all. After 1945, we said "never again." But then we watched mass murder happen again, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, and now, in the 21st century, in Darfur.

Now we face a new challenge: jihadist terror. Leaders around the world claim to be united in vowing to deny the terrorists victories. And yet. In the immediate wake of the Beslan slaughter, one might have expected editorials in top U.S. papers simply to express grief, anger, and solidarity, and a commitment to winning the war on terror. Instead, they tended briefly to denounce the terrorists and then focus on the incompetence of the Russian security forces, and on rehashing the dismal history of Russian-Chechen relations.

The New York Times, for example, concluded its editorial by urging a "bold Russian reach for compromise" with, needless to say, "diplomatic nuance." It took Ralph Peters, a military analyst writing in the New York Post, to state the simple and unfashionable truth: "The attack in Beslan wasn't about Russia's brutal incompetence in Chechnya--as counter-productive as Moscow's heavy-handedness may have been. It was about religious bigotry so profound that the believer can hold a gun to a child's head, pull the trigger and term the act 'divine justice'."

But this is too simple for American liberals, or for the government of France. Two French journalists were kidnapped in Iraq over a week ago by the Islamic Army of Iraq. The French foreign minister hurried to the Middle East to ask that French citizens in effect be treated differently from citizens of countries in the U.S.-led coalition. Le Figaro commented that "in the light of its position on the Iraq war, France could have hoped to be sheltered" from such attacks. In efforts to find that shelter, the French diplomatic effort has been, in its way, "impressive," Guillaume Parmentier, a French political analyst, told the Washington Post before hastily adding that "it is scandalous to suggest that the French attitude is based on appeasement of terrorists".

Scandalous--and true. Doesn't France's rhetoric imply that the Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, previously executed by the same terrorist group, was somehow less deserving of not being killed in cold blood? And what of civilians from Spain, South Korea, Nepal, and other countries, murdered in Iraq by terrorists? Do they somehow not really count, coming as they do from nations that helped liberate Iraq? And what of the thousands of Iraqi civilians slaughtered by terrorists? One doesn't hear much French concern about their suffering.

Meanwhile, it took the bloodbath in Beslan to crack the deafening silence in the Arab world. Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, former editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote a column in that newspaper headlined, "The Painful Truth is that All of the Terrorists are Muslims." Acknowledging this truth is the beginning of the Arab world's setting itself free--but only the beginning. It is true that the U.S. could do a better job of persuading more Arabs, Muslims, and Europeans to join in the war on terror. It is true that the U.S. could do a better job of supporting those who have. But this war cannot wait on better diplomacy. The terrorists do not wait.

On Saturday, we will commemorate the third anniversary of the September 11
terrorist attacks on America. It is natural that we Americans will think first of our countrymen who died that day, and of those who have died since then prosecuting the war on terror. But we will also pause to think of victims of terror elsewhere, and of those who fight with us in common cause. Four decades ago, in the struggle against totalitarian dictatorship, we were all Berliners. In the war against jihadist terror, we are all Beslaners now.

William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.