In the next year or two, it is entirely possible that a dozen or so Islamic terrorists (which may include men, women and some non-Arab recruits) will take over an American school and hold a couple of hundred children and their teachers hostage, vowing to kill them all if their demands – for the release of imprisoned terrorists, or American withdrawal from Iraq, or whatever – are not promptly met.

There is nothing impossible, or even unlikely, about this. In fact, it has already happened, in Russia. The ghastly drama was played out in Beslan, a small city in southern Russia, a couple of weeks ago. When it was over, 150 children, together with an equal number of teachers and other adults, and all but one of the hijackers, were dead.

Most of the aspects of the tragedy weren’t even new. Terrorists willing to commit suicide on behalf of their objectives have been around for years: Osama bin Laden deployed 19 of them in al-Qaida’s attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. The only novelty in Beslan was the diabolical tactic of seizing children. (The rebels threatened to kill 50 children for every terrorist slain by the authorities.)

The Russian government has been criticized for ineptness in its handling of the episode, and perhaps it was guilty as charged. But it was negotiating with the hijackers, and had even managed to persuade them to release about 20 of the youngest children, when some unexplained occurrence set off two huge bombs that collapsed a large section of the school’s roof. After that, both sides began killing everyone they could.

How would Americans – the children’s parents and the public at large, not to mention the government – respond to such a crisis? We could forgive the parents if they demanded immediate surrender to the terrorists’ demands – human beings are simply not designed to acquiesce nobly in the killing of their children for a higher cause. But the government would be duty-bound to reject the hijackers’ demands, even at the cost of the children’s lives, lest it encourage other terrorists to turn America into a charnel house of the youngest and most innocent among us.

And what about the public at large? If the crisis extended over several days, there would be time for many people to reason the matter through, and see the grim wisdom of the government’s position. But you can bet that there would also be an articulate minority of college professors, deracinated intellectuals and the usual crackpots who populate protest demonstrations, arguing that President Bush (or Kerry, as the case may be) brought the whole tragedy on us by reason of his vicious policies.

In a way, the determination of these dissenters to politicize such a ghastly scenario is the mirror image of the terrorists’ determination to create it in the first place. There is no one more horrible than the person for whom political goals transcend all other considerations.

If such an event as the one at Beslan occurs in the United States, it will remind us, as nothing else can, of the nature of the evil we are facing. The terrorists who have organized and spread across the face of the world in recent decades are the radical fringe of Islam, and they are fueled by despair. Their culture has simply failed to come to terms with modernity; or, as they would more proudly put it, it rejects modernity. They cannot possibly defeat, in military terms, the great nations of the Western World – most notably, the United States. But their faith is strong, and they believe that in its name they can make world dominion simply unendurable for the West.

To that end, they are ready to sacrifice their own individual lives, and even the lives of innocent children. And a readiness to commit suicide does, unquestionably, give tactical advantages to an attacker. We cannot possibly eliminate all such foes, but we can and must resist them. They will disappear only when radical Islam, in the fullness of time, has made its peace with the modern world.

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