“To clutch at everything or to throw away everything is the reaction of those who [whether they know it or not] believe fanatically in death.”
So declared Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who faced the horrors of Nazism without ducking or diving – and who paid the price with his life.
Sadly, ‘clutching’ and ‘throwing’ seems almost all we are habituated to do as the latest example of the awful logic of terrorism stares cruelly out of our TV screens in those unforgiving scenes of carnage from Beslan.
When upwards of 350 people, many children, are killed through a school hostage stand-off in a once obscure border town, no-one knows quite what to think anymore.
The numbing heartlessness of tactics like this also anaesthetises rational thought among politicians and sensible debate in the popular media.
What is left as yet more debris is cleared away (in Iraq, Afghanistan, Spain and Israel-Palestine as well as North Ossetia) is the cycle of reactive vengeance and the ritual of evasive hedonism.
The ‘clutching’ technique is seen in the desperate speeches of Bush, Sharon and Putin, as they pursue with even greater vigour the policies of invasion and bloody crackdown which further entrench an all-consuming war between rival religious and secular apocalypticisms.
The ‘throwaway’ routine is exemplified by Israeli clubbers in the Occupied Territories, dancing away their fear in good-time resignation. Those further away shop away the pain when they have the means.
Even – perhaps especially – in the face of appalling tragedy, we have to find a way beyond those instinctive responses that trap us. The fact that they are understandable is not the point. The fact that they are counter-productive is.
The situation in the Caucuses where the Beslan tragedy has unfolded is a good example. For years non-state groups have been armed by Russia and have benefited from corruption and chaos in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Soviet system.
For years, too, Moscow has stoked the instability of the region (ethnic cleansing against Georgians in Ossetia has received more than silent assent) and has adopted brutal military tactics (like the destruction of Grosny) in a divide-and-rule strategy to protect its geopolitical interests.
The outcome has been disastrous for all concerned. It may well get much worse in the coming months if nothing effective is done. So where do we go after Beslan?
Terrorist, guerrilla and insurgency tactics are based on informal global networks, lateral attacks on vulnerable targets, and the employment of relatively low-level, mobile technology. The current jargon for this is ‘asymetric warfare’.
Yet the success of these strategies depends substantially on the predictability of nation states – their tendency to pursue policies that feed rather than starve the base of terrorism; that leave anger and root injustice unresolved.
Maybe the time has come for a greater emphasis on ‘asymetric peace-building’ instead of over-reliance on warfare in the struggle against terrorism?
Such an approach is neither unthinkable nor unrealistic. It is based on a broader and deeper notion of security than can be generated by force and counter-fear alone. (Let no-one pretend that these will go away overnight.)
For a start, Russia is part of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an established pan-state network which can be pressurised to call an immediate conference to pursue fresh political approaches to the Caucuses.
Strengthened UN peacekeeping forces may have to be part of the deal too, partly financed by relinquishing the iron fist in Chechnya and opening political negotiations with more moderate nationalists.
Coordinated efforts are also needed to cut off the supply of weapons and cash to the region, including multilateral curbs on the arms trade. Chechen groups have in recent years acquired surface-to-air missiles on open markets, not just small arms from smuggling. Governments cannot ignore this.
Civil society groups have a major role to play too. As well as targeting greed and militarism in Western societies, networks like the European Social Forum (due to gather over 30,000 people in London from 15-17 October) could support grassroots peace-building in Central and Eastern Europe.
Faith communities can also build bridges together and seek ways to challenge the corrosive legitimation of violence in their midst.
Such measures require a huge effort of human willpower as well as policy-changes at governmental level. Cynicism in the face of horror is natural but deeply misplaced.
When the New York Times once asked US General Westmorland about the slaughter of civilians in Vietnam, his reply was: ‘It’s a problem, but it does deprive the enemy of their population, doesn’t it?’ Sadly the logic of terror can infect states too. President Putin has recently talked of ‘dismembering Georgia’.
The countervailing logic is, indeed, tough to grasp. “Peace is my gift to you”, Jesus is recorded as saying in St John. He adds, to paraphrase, “But it is not a peace that can be appropriated on the world’s usual terms.”
This is the message that the Churches, through initiatives like Christian Peacemaker Teams in the Middle East, need to keep talking and walking.
For even President Bush knows, in his heart, that you cannot win a war against terrorism. This was his recent candid admission in a low profile interview, rapidly retracted by the spin doctors.
The true struggle, as St Paul might say, is against ‘principalities and powers’: the social, psychological, institutional and spiritual forces that, devoid of any larger hope, keep the wheels of death turning.
As Bonhoeffer illustrates, resisting them is neither romantic nor cost-free. But the alternatives are even more horrific.