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Tragedy and evil

A condolence letter to Iraqis after the northern bombings begins by paying attention to their suffering.

August 16, 2007

Denial is a powerful survival mechanism. How else could the human race go on while confronted with daily evidence of its own unspeakable behavior? Yet some events are so tragic that they demand we stop blocking out the pain and try at the very least to respect the grief of others. And so today we ponder the evil of the five coordinated bombings in northern Iraq on Tuesday that killed more than 250 innocents and wounded perhaps 350 more.

We don't know who did it, but it's indicative of the breakdown of Iraqi society that there are multiple suspects in this mass murder. Was it a Sunni extremist group retaliating for the stoning of a Yazidi woman who had dated a Sunni Arab? Or could the motive be religious? The Yazidis are a culturally Kurdish group with a distinct, pre-Islamic religion and are considered heretics by some Muslims. In April, 23 Yazidi passengers were executed near Mosul by gunmen who first ordered all Christians off their bus. U.S. officials blamed the bombings on Al Qaeda, which has fomented hatred between Iraqi sects and which might wish to provoke violence in the oil-rich north, where Sunni Arabs are clashing with Kurds.

But identifying the killers by sect or affiliation does not help us comprehend the incomprehensible: What kind of nihilistic monsters see a benefit to murdering and maiming hundreds of innocent men, women and children? No historic wrong, no ideological right, no religious calling could ever justify such crimes. Yet they do serve one purpose: to shatter trust and faith in human decency and so make reconciliation almost impossible.

After nearly five years of war, we cannot accurately count the Iraqi dead. One website, Iraqbodycount.org, puts the toll at a minimum of 69,513, although that figure, like so much else, is disputed. We do not know how many were killed by fellow Iraqis, by U.S. forces or by Al Qaeda zealots. Nor can we apportion responsibility for the deaths caused by the havoc unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion. But that must not stop us from mourning the dead, sending condolences to the survivors and doing the Iraqis the fundamental courtesy of paying their terrible tragedy attention.

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