We have a child-like faith in the inevitable failure of everything abhorrent

Had the cultural emissaries of the North Caucasus, the Tsarnaev brothers, otherwise known as the (alleged) Boston marathon bombers, set out to motivate Western journalists to brush up on their high school geography, they'd have succeeded. In the last two weeks, more articles and columns appeared in the United States and Canada about the troubled region than in the last seven years combined.

"The last 70 years, more likely," a friend tells me. He has always had a thing about what he calls Big-Power parochialism. A well-travelled American, his experience has been that civilizations don't waste energy knowing more about anything than they absolutely have to. Since big, wealthy cultures don't have to know too much to get by, they don't.

My friend also believes in losing from time to time. "Setbacks are salutary," he says. "They're educational, and should be welcomed for this reason alone. Look at Germany after the Second World War, look at Japan - then look at the smoking hole in the ground that used to be a cocky Soviet Union."

"Yes, but look at America," I reply.

"Yes, right, look at it, old friend!" He grins. "I rest my case."

I see his point, sort of, but I still think he's talking through his hat. The West's problem isn't the wars it wins but the wars it loses. Free enterprise democracies can survive winning World War II or the Cold War; what hurts them is losing Vietnam, or Afghanistan. So far, the West proved most vulnerable to men riding mules or wearing black pajamas. High-tech, it seems, is trumped by low-tech beyond a point.

But in the case of the Boston bombings, the terrorists are putting on the map only the Caspian Sea, not their case. What do the Tsarayev brothers want?

Wrong question, according to my friend; terrorism is about preparing the ground. In the old days, the town crier went from street corner to street corner, shouting "Hear ye! Hear ye!" before there was anything to hear. Had he started with the message, everybody would have missed it. Terrorists are town criers.

We have a child-like, or maybe ostrich-like, faith in the inevitable failure of everything abhorrent

Please! Terrorists are murdering louts. If town criers had blown up people, they would have been lynched before they could deliver any message. Only evil morons hope to generate sympathy by homicide. That's why terrorists always lose.

Even while I'm saying this, I'm aware of a structural flaw. Terrorists don't always lose.

"Whenever it looks like they might win, we change the rules," my friend says. "We turn them into freedom fighters. We invite them into government. We give them the Nobel Peace Prize."

Here my friend scores big. Having made it an article of faith that crime doesn't pay, when we see something pay we conclude it can't have been a crime. We have a child-like, or maybe ostrich-like, faith in the inevitable failure of everything abhorrent. The dangerous corollary is that we find nothing abhorrent if it succeeds. We note that Mussolini made the trains run on time, then set up Truth and Reconciliation committees to reconcile falsehoods and call them history.

A well-placed explosion can influence policy no less than an embargo, and a couple of kids can buy a pressure cooker

Whether something "works" is no test for any other value. Lies may fly and despicable things may function, and the fact that they achieve some desired end doesn't make them any the less despicable. Success doesn't cleanse, purify, or excuse immoral options. It does something else, though: It keeps immoral options on the table.

Enter terrorism. People have recourse to it because terrorism works. It may not work perfectly, it may not work smoothly or consistently, but then nothing works consistently. Diplomacy doesn't, conventional war doesn't, boycotts don't, and neither do economic sanctions. In any case, aggrieved groups that resort to terror lack the muscle for other options. It takes a wealthy, powerful country to invade or blockade, but a well-placed explosion can influence policy no less than an embargo, and a couple of kids can buy a pressure cooker. Terror thrives because violence, like politics, is the art of the possible.

How did the North Caucasus get into the act? It didn't. As part of a fault line dividing Islam and Christendom, the mountainous region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, possessed by the Russian Czars but inhabited by teeming tribes of mainly Muslim villagers, the North Caucasus has been a frontline of a clash between civilizations for centuries, with periodic, cruel warfare almost a way of life. The act is old; we imported it. It is we who are the newcomers.