"I do not believe I am exaggerating in affirming that the empire of Russia is a country whose inhabitants are the most miserable on earth, because they suffer at one and the same time the evils of barbarism and of civilization."

-- The Marquis de Custine,

"Letters From Russia," 1839

MORE THAN 160 years after the Marquis de Custine wrote those words, his infamous observations of Russian culture were as relevant as ever this week as the world became acquainted with the full horror of events in southern Russia. Since masked gunmen stormed into a school in the town of Beslan on Wednesday, the first day of the Russian school year, barbarism has been in evidence, along with the worst fruits of "civilization": automatic weapons, bombs, grenades, suicide belts and attack helicopters. The gunmen, described as "inhuman" by those who survived, held hundreds of children and their parents hostage for two days without allowing them food or water, and they shot at those who tried to escape. Russian authorities then stormed the school yesterday without any plan. The result was chaos on an almost apocalyptic scale: Bloody children, piles of corpses, officials providing false or contradictory information, wild rumors, terror and panic.

It is important, in the wake of these events, that the U.S. government reiterate its sympathy for the Russians and offer to help track down and identify the terrorists who planned and carried out this attack. There can be no excuse, no justification, no rationalization for the barbarity of seizing a school and turning children into victims. Every parent feels the anguish of the parents of Beslan.

It remains true, as we have said before, that the Russian government should seek a political settlement in Chechnya, where civilians also have been the chief victims for much of the past decade. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the Chechen war was "over" long ago. But the underlying causes of that war have never been dealt with, and the war itself has had a devastating effect on Chechen society. Deeper, longer-lasting reconciliation between Russia and Chechnya requires not the Russian imposition of another puppet government on Chechnya but a more profound search for a way in which the two can live side by side in peace. This must involve negotiation with moderate Chechens -- even moderate Chechen separatists -- and the creation of a truly representative Chechen government. If, that is, it is not too late already.

Russia's abominable behavior has helped spark but does not excuse Chechen terrorists and their partners in crime. Chechen terrorism makes less likely but no less essential a solution to Chechnya's misery.