Suddenly, a far-away country about which most of us know little has shot to the very forefront of our minds and consciences. In a new century already steeped in horror, what happened at the Russian school in Beslan plumbs new depths of barbarity.
The carefully planned slaughter of hundreds of children, a massacre of innocents mown down inside their school by zealots who bayoneted one when he asked for water and who blew others up or shot them in cold blood, is a monstrosity which has had a profound effect upon those who watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded.
The hellish images of murder, of screaming terror, of naked and starving children forced to eat the flowers they had brought to school or drink their own urine will surely serve to define our terrorized age. It is impossible to comprehend how human beings can behave like this to anyone, let alone to children.
And that incomprehension makes us realize that we are dealing here with something that is as terrifying as it is diabolical people who no longer behave as recognizable human beings, who are in the grip of a religious hysteria so profound that human life is of no consequence whatsoever, except as a means to terrorize the world.
The Russian government has rightly been criticized for the appalling shambles of the operation to free the hostages. President Putin has acknowledged the fundamental mistakes that were made. But what happened at that school has the gravest possible implications for all of us.
For I do not believe this was an isolated episode in a fight between Chechen separatists and the Russian government. This was Russia's 9/11, part of the global jihad being waged against all infidels Americans, Europeans, Russians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or moderate Muslims in order to re-establish the medieval Islamic global empire. It was, in short, further evidence that we are embroiled in a world war.
For the Muslim world, the Beslan massacre may be some kind of watershed. For it has prompted some unusually forthright self-criticism by various writers and thinkers. Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al Arabiya television, for example, has urged Muslims to admit the 'scandalous facts' that most terrorists for the past decade have been Muslims and that this is the result of a 'corrupted culture'.
Yet even now, some in the west still don't get it. Such people say the Beslan atrocity was caused by the war on Iraq, which has created yet more Islamic terrorists. But this is to get history totally back to front.
The attempt to impose an Islamic state in Chechnya goes as far back as 1858. In recent times, the issue was reignited after first Boris Yeltsin and then President Putin brutally put down a renewed Chechen revolt. But after the Chechen terrorist mastermind Shamil Basayev took control in 1994, the revolt accelerated. Hundreds of people were murdered after Basayev took thousands hostage at two separate hospitals in Russia.
As al Qaeda grew stronger and bolder throughout the nineties, Basayev's terrorists are said to have found it expedient to make use of its money, weaponry, training and organizational skills. The aim of Chechen separatism mutated into the explicit agenda of establishing an Islamic empire across the whole of the north Caucasus.
As the agenda shifted, the horrors increased. In October 2002, 129 hostages died after the terrorists seized a Moscow theatre; in February, a human bomb killed more than 40 people on the Moscow subway; and last month, two Russian airliners were blown up in midair, killing 89 people. To say that all this was the result of the war on Iraq reveals a startling dislocation from reality.
Like the Russian atrocities, the taking of the two French hostages and the massacre of Nepalese workers in Iraq are said by some to bear the hallmarks of al Qaeda involvement. Yet Nepal was not involved in the war, and France opposed it. No matter. The agenda is the same: war against the infidel anywhere Islam has a claim or a grievance.
It is argued, though, that the war on Iraq has merely recruited yet more enraged Muslims to al Qaeda's cause. But it was al Qaeda that attacked the west, not the other way round; and it was Saddam's Iraq that carried out acts of terror against the US. The west is merely seeking to defend itself in a war that has been declared upon it. In wars, repeated attacks take place. To blame this not on our attackers but on ourselves takes appeasement to new depths of absurdity.
And this is a war unlike any other we have known. It is not being fought between states or with conventional armies. Its perpetrators hide their fighters among civilian populations, so to act against them produces an outcry. They target civilians in order to terrorize and demoralize. And they use children as victims, whether slaughtered in their schools or brainwashed and intimidated into becoming human bombs.
What they rely upon, above all else, is weakness among their targets. And in Russia, as President Putin has now admitted, there was weakness in spades. For despite all the brutality of his attempt to crack down on Chechen separatism, he was catastrophically weak where it really mattered in realizing the nature of the threat and securing his nation against it.
Only now does he understand that the global terrorism which Russia so cynically helped promote by arming both Iraq and Iran, for example threatens him too. Only now does he acknowledge that as a result of Russia's endemic corruption and lawlessness, the country's security is non-existent. And in such chaos, the bacillus of Islamic terrorism has taken root and grown.
But Russia's weakness carries a dire warning for us, too. For the west is also weak, in its ignorance, prejudice and gullibility. Terrorism only became such a potent weapon of war because the west allowed it to happen. From the first plane hijacks in the sixties, the west showed weakness by refusing to confront the perpetrators and even rewarding them by paying attention to their purported grievances.
When the US was repeatedly attacked by Islamic terrorism throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it merely sat on its hands, made token responses, or decided to cut and run. Osama bin Laden concluded from this that the US was weak. We know this because he said so. And so he unleashed 9/11.
But instead of learning the correct lesson that the current horrors are the result of such a failure to act, the west has succumbed to historical amnesia over those previous attacks. It is convulsed instead by hysteria over the war on Iraq, with absurd conspiracy theories about Zionists and 'neo-conservatives' surfacing instead almost daily in the mainstream media and driving out rational debate.
And so the terrorists carefully calibrate their atrocities to exploit such weakness, confident that for every outrage it is not they but America that will be blamed. Those whipping up this hysteria, therefore, have blood on their hands.
As President Putin has said, 'the weak are always beaten'. Unless the west wakes up from its trance and starts realizing who are its true allies and who its true enemies, the scenes of anguish in Russia will be merely the prelude to an unthinkable defeat.