How Many Dead Equal a Failed Government?

What are we to make of the bizarre contrast between our national grief over the terrible slaughter of students and faculty at Virginia Tech and our muted reaction to the continuing bloodbath in and around Baghdad? One mass killing in the 209 years since Virginia Tech was founded is not exactly a trend. It is a terrible thing but not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

We cannot say the same about events in Baghdad and Iraq. Just today four separate car bombs in and around Baghdad teft at least 180 Iraqis–mostly Shia–dead. On Tuesday, at least 85 bodies turned up and there were more bombings. Monday was not much better–thirty corpses and at least twenty killed in bombings. Sixty nine plus on Sunday. And the beat goes on.

Think about those numbers in relationship to the anger expressed by the public and press because Virginia Tech University officials failed to prevent Monday’s massacre. What would we be saying if another shooter showed up at Virginia Tech on Tuesday and killed 20 more students and another shooter bagged an additional 40 on Wednesday? The President of the University would be lynched, the students would arm themselves, and the police would lose any pretense of control. Why do we think Iraqi Shias and Sunnis should react differently then we would?

When you consider the events of the last week in Iraq there is no reason any sane Iraqi–Sunni or Shia–would have any confidence in the Petraeus plan. Petraeus and U.S forcecs are in trouble. Desperate trouble. Despite White House flacks and politicians like McCain insisting that things are improving in Baghdad, the continued mass casualty bombings, the stacks of bodies left on the streets, the destruction of key infrastructure (like the Sarafiya bridge), and the bombing of the Iraqi parliament is reality and cannot be casually dismissed as the crazy ravings of a news media intent on reporting bad news.

Hell, compare the conduct of reporters operating in the Iraq combat zones with the nonsense being spewed by every network and cable anchor who managed to buy a seat to Blacksburg, Virginia. Not a single news organization operating at Virginia Tech had to contract body guards and armored cars to move around to report the story. The U.S. based media did not have to find a sand bagged roof in the Green Zone as a background shot for their nightly report. They roamed freely without fear.

That is not the case in Baghdad specifically and Iraq in general. Despite the surge of U.S. troops into Baghdad the violence continues, especially against the Shia majority. Today’s attacks on the Shia, coming on the heels of the resignation of Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, are particularly worrisome.

No Iraqi Shia with any sense trusts the Maliki government or the Americans to protect them. Do not be too surprised when the Mehdi Army and Badr Militias, two of the most prominent Shia militias, step up attacks in the coming weeks against Sunni targets and U.S. forces. Why U.S. forces? Because many of the Shia, particularly those mourning loved ones murdered in the latest blasts, will be convinced that the U.S. allowed these attacks to take place. How could they think otherwise? The U.S. is a superpower. The U.S. has deployed more troops to Baghdad ostensibly to protect the people. Yet the Shia are dying now in a disproportionate number. The Shia are likely to draw only one conclusion–this is a deliberate policy of the United States to target and kill the Shia.

Moqtada al Sadr’s recent withdrawal from the Maliki government is fortuitous for him. His folks are not part of the government and cannot be blamed for failing to prevent the latest bloodshed. But they will now be on the scene to offer protection and revenge. If the government cannot protect you and your family then you must do it yourself or back someone who can.

In the total scheme of things the horror unfolding in Iraq will affect our nation’s security more than a month of Virginia Tech massacres. Yet our attention is riveted on Blacksburg not Baghdad. There are some silver linings. At least the media is covering genuine grief and anguish as opposed to the nonsense of a Don Imus or Anna Nicole Smith. And maybe, just maybe, as we contemplate what it means to mourn the single day massacre of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech we will develop an empathy for Iraqis who, today, are mourning the equivalent of five Virgina Techs.

But the Iraqis won’t sleep tonight with the hope that today’s heartache was an aberration. Nope. They wake up each and every day confronting a new horror just as bad as Monday in Blacksburg, Virginia. When government institutions and officials prove incompetent or incapable of protecting citizens it is no shocker that people take matters into their own hands. Welcome to the Hobbesian world of modern Iraq.

LARRY C. JOHNSON is a former CIA analyst who blogs at No Quarter.