The "why" question

question markPerhaps one of the more difficult questions asked in journalism -- there are the traditional five Ws and the H -- is the "Why" question. The contrast in this Washington Post story, on the likely increase of suicide bombers in Iraq during Ramadan, between the way the holy month used to be in Iraq and the way it is today is striking. The details the author uses are also quite gory:

A burst of white light followed, and a boom, muffled by the concrete blast walls that ring Baghdad's Green Zone. Shreds of bloody cloth and flecks of flesh rained upon stunned survivors. Among them, witnesses said, was the targeted Interior Ministry official, standing in the gore and flame, unscathed.

The unknown attacker ended his life on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, when some radical Muslims believe the gates of Heaven open and those who die in the name of the faith have their entrance to Paradise guaranteed. Two fist-size gobbets of soot-streaked flesh dangled from coiled concertina wire.

Compare that grisly scene with what Ramadan is typically like:

Ramadan is normally one of the happiest periods of the Islamic calendar, one when aunts, uncles and cousins assemble after daylong fasts for elaborate meals. Children stay up into the early hours for TV and conversation. Men head out to cafes for smoky late-night outings.

In more peaceful times, commercial districts in Baghdad would be thick with people at the close of each day, as shoppers gathered food for the nighttime gatherings. But Ayad Abu Jihad, a salesman standing unhappily in his empty appliance store in the Karrada neighborhood, said: "This is nothing like Ramadan."

The author of the article gathers a lot of facts and colorful antidotes but fails to even address the "why" question, let along attempt to answer it. Clearly answering that question -- why are people apparently using this celebrated holy month to commit horrible acts of violence? -- would require delving into the theology of Islam.

That type of reporting is noticeably lacking in the American mainstream press's coverage of terrorism. I believe that while there is fine reporting of statistics and gathering of graphic scenes from the ground, reporters covering terrorism are missing a key question.

If the predictions come true and this month of Ramadan turns ugly, I will be looking for some solid reporting into the theological motivations of the suicide bombers.

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