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March 1, 2006
Column #1,279
The Senselessness of Violence
by Michael J. McManus

Five days after the gold-domed Askariya shrine in Samarra was destroyed, Iraqi morgues reported 1,300 dead. Hundreds had been kidnaped from homes, shot in the head, and dumped.

Such violence is incomprehensible to Americans. We wonder, "Why can't Sunni and Shiite Muslims get along? They are both Muslims. Why can't they be as tolerant of one another as Baptists and Catholics who differ in the way they worship the same God?"

How would Catholics feel about Protestants if St. Peter's were blown up? Imagine the Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling painted by Michelangelo from 1508-1512 where cardinals have met for centuries to elect a new Pope - destroyed. Or the great church itself with its magnificent vaulted ceilings and black spiral columns at the altar - reduced to rubble.

If such a horrific thing happened, Catholics would be angry and suspect that Protestants did it.  The destroyed Shiite mosque was centuries older than the Vatican, built to honor the founders of its faith, as St. Peter's was built to honor the first Pope.

In Iraq Shiite hotheads seeking vengeance, retaliated with dozens of drive-by shootings and burnings of Sunni mosques, raids, bombings and assassinations. That provoked similar Sunni counter-retaliations. The newly-elected Sunni leaders pulled out of talks to establish the new government. They compared their feelings about the shrine's destruction to how Americans felt after the World Trade Center's collapse.

Sunni leaders had concrete demands before they could rejoin the effort to create the new government. First an immediate curfew, a denunciation of the violence by top political and religious leaders, and the return of Sunni mosques occupied by Shiite militia.

The demands were accepted. The curfew began Thursday night and continued for days. Violence levels fell. On Saturday President Bush called leaders from each faction, urging them to work toward accommodation. He urged them to consider, "The people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice. The choice is chaos or unity," Bush told ABC on Tuesday.

Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, after a whirlwind of telephone calls, got all of the factions, including Sunnis, to meet Saturday. As a Kurd, he was perceived as a neutral party.

A former U.S. diplomat in contact with Talabani told the Washington Post.  "It is the most pessimistic I've seen him, and that includes being in Iraq the night the uprising collapsed and we were fleeing for our lives. Here, he was profoundly disturbed about the future of Iraq."

Iraqi leaders seemed to look over an abyss and recognized that their mutual enemy is the terrorist who nearly succeeded in igniting a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. They did have a choice of "chaos or unity." We can  pray their new efforts to create a government  giving each faction a peaceful voice in shaping the nation's future - are successful.

Still, we Americans are puzzled by the violence.

Consider what happened in Tuscaloosa last week.  At 11 p.m. on Thursday,  Jason Gardner came out of a roadhouse bar, walked across the street to the Quick Grill, a small takeout restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern foods.  He began shouting about "Sand Niggers" and urinated on the wall of the grill.

Someone told Jassim Madan, owner of the restaurant and a native of Bahrain, who came outside and told him to stop. Their shouting attracted the attention of bouncers from the bar who walked over and told Gardner to leave. He went back to his truck and returned to the takeout, pulled up behind the car of Nabil Chagri, who had not participated in the altercation, but was sitting with his family waiting for food.

Shots rang out. The first hit Chagri's head rest with such force that debris entered his head.  Another shot hit his neck and a third slammed into his back, missing a baby in the back seat by inches. Chagri's lung collapsed.

Among those who went to his aid was John Tyra, a Marine Reservist who returned from a tour in Iraq nearly a year ago. Afterward Tyra said he was sickened by the incident: "I shed a few tears over it. Let's put it that way," said the lance corporal working in anti-terrorism. "It just breaks my heart that that can happen here in the United States."

The next morning Gardner was arrested and charged with attempted murder, and jailed. Changri is recovering.

Chaos is not just in Iraq. It is as near as a drunk with a rifle in his truck.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," such as John Tyra and Jalal Talabani.

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