The cycle of violence must end now
The catastrophic end to Russia's hostage crisis defies belief, even in an age when we have sadly become accustomed to brutal acts of terrorism that target the weak and the innocent.
When militants seized a school full of children and wired it up with explosives, they were clearly contemplating a human tragedy of the very worst kind. And they got their wish. The chaotic and bloody conclusion to the siege, in which Russian commandos stormed the building, has cost at least 322 lives. The victims were not combatants in any war. They were ordinary people, most of them children.
This outrage has rightly been condemned around the world. But as we come to terms with the full extent of the tragedy, there is only one question that matters: how can similar atrocities be avoided in the future? It applies not only to Russia, but also to Iraq, Israel and every other country in which ordinary people find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Vladimir Putin, George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon have all opted for hardline tactics aimed at mercilessly crushing terrorists. But the strategy is not working. It is breeding greater resentment and violence. The terrorists are becoming bolder - and their actions more extreme.
The carnage in Beslan was, regrettably, always likely once the rebels had taken control of the school. There was never any prospect of their demands, which included a call for Russian troops to leave Chechnya, being met. And similar incidents have, in the past, ended with many lives being lost as the troops moved in.
This time, however, there was a need for greater sensitivity. So many children were at risk. Mr Putin rightly pledged to negotiate rather than storm the building. In the end, this was not possible. A tragic series of events led to fleeing hostages being shot and Russian forces launching a spontaneous and hopelessly ill-planned rescue attempt. The results were horrific.
The situation was extremely difficult. With food and water being denied to the hostages, a raid would soon have become inevitable. But the crisis should have been handled better. There was no clear action plan, and the failure to keep anxious relatives away from the scene only added to the chaos. Crucially, there was a complete failure by Russian intelligence services to anticipate and react to the impending crisis. Major shortcomings in the nation's ability to foil attacks before they can take place have been exposed.
Now, we wait to see how Mr Putin will react. His instincts will be to launch another brutal crackdown on Chechnya in a bid to make good on his pledge to wipe out the rebels. But this has been tried before. All it does is bring more pain to Chechnya's long-suffering, war-weary people. Most of them do not support the rebels and only want a chance to live their lives in peace.
Another violent crackdown will only spur the terrorists to commit new atrocities. The evidence is there to be found in the recent downing of two Russian passenger planes and the bombing outside a Moscow underground station.
The Russian authorities say a number of Arab mercenaries were involved in the raid on the school. The involvement of foreign Muslim extremists would be worrying. But we should not be too quick to conclude that this is part of an international terror campaign. Certainly there are links between the Chechen rebels and other Muslim extremists. But the attack on the school was predominantly a Russian affair, and it is in Russia that a solution will have to be found.
There is no easy answer. Even the working out of a fairer political compromise for Chechnya will not guarantee an end to the terror. And any attempt to negotiate with those responsible for the raid on the school would rightly be seen as a sign of weakness. But efforts should at least be made to enter into dialogue with the more moderate Chechen leaders. The priority must be to bring this destructive cycle of violence to an end.