Everywhere and nowhere.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 7 2004 11:38 AM

Everywhere and Nowhere

The international press looks for answers in the aftermath of Beslan.

Newspapers across the globe continue to grapple with the enormity of the massacre at the Beslan school in southern Russia. Russia's normally submissive media lambasted the government's anti-terror efforts and pointed a finger clearly at the country's top leadership, which prompted a change at the helm of one of the country's leading papers. Around the world, commentators analyzed the essence of evil and sought to put this latest attack into a broader context of the global war on terror.

Russian newspapers heaped criticism on their country's institutions and policies. Novaya Gazeta lamented, "Our military, secret services and law enforcement agencies are ineffective, unprofessional, demoralized, and thoroughly corrupt. Only breathtaking incompetence and lack of readiness could explain the nearly 10 hours of fighting in Beslan."

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Russians paid particular attention to President Vladimir Putin's televised address on Saturday, in which he said, "We failed to recognize the complexity and dangerous nature of the processes unfolding in our own country and in the world." Writing in Moscow's Komsomolskaya Pravda, a commentary said, "The issue here is how to interpret the pronoun 'we.' " The paper said responsibility lies with the leadership, and added—lest there be any doubt—"in Russia that authority is the president." In his televised address, Putin said, "The terrorists think they are stronger than us," which prompted Moskovskiy Komsomolets to retort, "Yes, the terrorists are stronger than us. Because in no other country in the world have there been five terrorist attacks in one week, let alone of this scale."

Russia's Vedomosti took aim at the intelligence community and urged Putin to understand that more is at stake than his political survival. "This new wave might not just sink his popularity but also create a threat to the very existence of Russia," it warned. In another column, the paper demanded leadership on key issues. "Where is the clearly formulated policy on Chechnya to bring the endless slaughter to an end?" it asked. "How are the latest terrorist attacks linked with the process of peaceful settlement in Chechnya?" (Translations from the Russian courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Around the world, many commentators have focused more on the scourge of terrorism in general and less on the Russian leadership's failings. In an editorial, Australia's Daily Telegraph termed the siege "the apex of evil," and said, "It is worth asking how normal human experience and the realms of balanced imagination could prepare for the prospect of something so foul." Noting that people had difficulty fathoming the attack on the World Trade Center, the paper said, "Again, the world has witnessed the death of implausibility. How civilized nations should prepare for such horrifying outcomes is the hardest question of these times. After the ongoing spectacle of civilians being decapitated, having their demise filmed and relayed around the world, and today, amid this terrible pile of spent humanity—it is obvious who the real martyrs are."

In a thoughtful leader, the Guardian of Britain asked what the world can do beyond mourning for the children and adults who died in Beslan's School No. 1. Noting that Russia has never tolerated international criticism of its Chechnya policy, the paper conceded that in the aftermath of the horrible bloodbath it is even less likely to do so. "But if there is to be a way forward, outsiders must get more involved in whatever ways they usefully can. … Security—stopping evil people killing the innocent—is paramount. Yet hearts and minds must be won as well. It will now be harder than before, but Russia's friends have a duty to urge it to seek political dialogue that promises some slender hope beyond the bloodshed."

A columnist in Israel's Ha'aretz urged Europe to acknowledge that terror has changed the world. "Unlike September 1939, when Europe quickly realized that it was looking at a world war, it's not clear whether Europe today realizes what America grasped long ago—that World War III is in full swing. This war is different from all the wars in history. It's not countries fighting countries. It's not a war that can be won by conquest or some cut-and-dried military victory. Because the enemy is terror. It's everywhere and nowhere."

Carl Schrag, formerly the editor of the Jerusalem Post, is a writer and lecturer.