| The cruellest moment
We recognize the dreadful moments now, even as they happen. None of us who ever saw the photograph of the young girl running naked down the rice-paddy road in Vietnam, grief burnt into her face, will ever forget it.
None of us can ever drive past a road sign pointing to 'Dunblane' without thinking of the sorrow it enshrines. No September 11 can be the same again. Srebrenica is no longer the name of some charming medieval town in eastern Bosnia. It, too, has become a label attached to suffering. The modern world is crowded with Gethsemanes.
Now there is another. What was Beslan until a couple of days ago' It was, quite literally, to us, nothing. And if you look at the television pictures of the catastrophe there, you can see the outlines of 'nothing' lurking in the background: the usual Russian mess, the slightly ramshackle, jerry-built sheds and offices, the cars parked here and there, the electricity lines across and along the potholy roads, the scurfy grass around them, the feeling, which Russia shares with America, that there is too much room in the vast continental spaces of the country for a great deal of care to be taken with the immediate details.
It was anywhere and nowhere, a normality, a fragment of the average.
Now, though, Beslan has taken its place in the list of cruelty and wrongness. Its name will be inseparable from the suffering of children and their parents, from the most terrible irruption of wickedness into innocent lives.
Precisely a year ago, just at the beginning of the school year, I was in Russia, in St Petersburg and, with her mother, I took a little girl, half-Russian, half-English, to her first day at school. Juliana Ivanovna Samarine, who is called Lilly by those who know and love her, took with her, as every other child did, a bunch of flowers for her teacher.
From 8 am, the pavements of St Petersburg, the embankments along the canals, with the sunshine glittering up onto the palace fa'ades beside them, were filled with rivers of children walking to school for the first day of term, each one with an enormous bunch of flowers in her hand. The little girls held them up above their heads like flags. At the school doors, the teachers stood receiving the tributes from their pupils, the headmistresses drowning in the biggest bunches, gardenfuls of flowers clustered to the bosom.
It was, as of course it was meant to be, a picture of innocence and affection...a small opening sign of encouragement, gratitude and optimism about the coming year. All over Russia this week, in Beslan as everywhere else, those rivers of flowers would have flowed along the streets, the whole continent of the country running with streams and cataracts of the dahlias, gladioli and chrysanthemums the Russians had picked from their allotment and dacha gardens, the private gestures of a traumatized country whose century-long sufferings are still, it seems, far from over.
Why does the sight of wounded and bleeding children hurt so much' Because they summon all sorts of archetypal memories. In their thinness and nakedness, the children look like vulnerability itself.
The small bodies slumped in men's arms, hanging there as loosely folded as a length of heavy cloth, are each of them a Piet', the archetype of pity. Each is a Cordelia carried on at the end of Act V, the cruellest moment in any play ever written.
Each carried body is a bitter parody of a sleeping child cared for in the arms of its father, in which every line is the same as it should be, but the meaning of every line is the opposite of what you hope it might be. The death and wounding of children ' by women terrorists, for goodness sake ' shown like this, when the wounded parents must do the carrying, and carry on doing the carrying after the crisis is over, is the denial of everything that matters most in life: the chance that the future might be better than the past; and the hope, which is in each child's face, that the world will be good to them.
It is a reminder that pitilessness lies near the heart of the universe. You only have to read the ancient texts to understand that. Psalm 77, written in the Iron Age, more than 2,500 years ago, stares straight at the dreadfulness of things. It is a lament in the face of unapproachable sorrow.
'Will the Lord cast off for ever' the Psalmist asks. 'And will he be favourable no more' Is his mercy clean gone for ever' Doth his promise fail for ever more' Hath God forgotten to be gracious' Hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies' And I said, this is my infirmity.'
There is no consolation in that. It simply states the cruelty of things and, when faced with the painful and distressing events that happen every week in the world, it seems clear to me that an understanding of that kind goes further than any form of sugared, consoling religion, or any creed that implies somehow that god is good and capable and has organized a good and kind universe.
Faced with Beslan, with the blood-soaked children lying on the stretchers, with the grief-shattered faces of the waiting parents, with the knowledge that the pain you see is only the beginning of the pain to come, I don't understand how anyone could maintain that this is a good world.
I think of Lilly Samarine, and of what I would be feeling now if it had been her school to which this had happened, if it had been her little body burnt and wounded on the stretcher. Would I ever trust again that this is the best of all possible worlds'