The boy in the center of the picture bothers me most. No older than ten, he sits with hands behind his head, staring in wide- eyed terror off the edge of the frame. To his left, an adult woman—one of the teachers, perhaps—looks nervously at the cameraman. And to the right of the boy stands a terrorist in military fatigues, an AK-74 slung at his side. Whether the child, the teacher, or the terrorist survived the explosions that would erupt a few hours later, I do not know. But here they are now and forever, frozen in the frame of a grainy video taken by the captors.
And here is another photo, taken the next day. A burly Russian soldier is carrying a little girl away from the carnage. She seems too rigid to be alive. A woman—probably her mother—is reaching out for the body. But the soldier is locked in place, looking at the woman and crying.
On September 1, terrorists stormed into a Russian school and took over 1,200 hostages—including hundreds of children. After killing most of the men and raping the women, the terrorists inadvertently set off some of theft own explosives. And as children ran screaming through the smoke and flames, trying to escape the devastated building, the gunmen emptied their assault rifles into them. Three hundred and thirty-six people died that day, and half of them were children.
The culprits have been described as Chechen separatists, and in a strict sense, they were that. But more fundamentally, they were proponents of that extreme form of Islam that believes itself at war with the rest of the world. Indeed, it has been reported that ten of the 30 gunmen were Arab, not Chechen. While the terrorists in this particularly horrific action may not have any direct ties to al Qaeda, they are in every way their ideological brethren.
Some have said—John Kerry among them—that this struggle against terrorism is better handled as something approaching a police action. But terrorists are more than mere lawbreakers. Criminals, after all, have no agenda beyond narrow self-interest. Criminals don’t crash planes into symbols of finance and defense, willingly killing themselves along with their hostages. Nor do they accompany their bombs with political or theological demands. Criminals have no ideology, or at least no ideology they’re willing to die for. Put simply, you can scare a criminal.
Not so with a soldier, and these terrorists are nothing if not self-styled soldiers in a war against the non- Muslim world. A true soldier, unlike a criminal, can only be killed or converted. By most reports, the U.S. military is succeeding at the former. But we can’t simply kill them all. Fanatics have a way of reproducing from their own dead—the devil’s twist on Tertullian’s ancient dictum that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.
And so Muslim ground must be made arid for this kind of fanaticism. The administration is trying to accomplish this through democracy and economic development. One of the stated goals of the Iraq war was to establish an Arab democracy—a government whose very presence would transform the face of the entire region. Democracy, it is argued, brings economic growth; and with economic growth, an end to the kind of poverty and despair that proves a fertile breeding ground for fanaticism.
But there’s more to conversion than economic improvement. Radical Islam is, after all, a religion. Thus far, moderate Muslims have had little success in swaying their more extreme coreligionists. Some of this can surely be blamed on economic and political considerations, but not all. Since Islam—at least the majority Sunni variety—lacks a central religious authority, proponents of the moderate schools must rely on persuasion and consensus to bring the fanatics, suicide bombers, and child-murderers to the center. No small feat.