TO many outsiders, the deaths of 10 people in a Belfast bomb blast is as bewildering and as senseless as the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the world where savagery crowds out reason and mutual tolerance.
One has to live in Northern Ireland to appreciate the entire community's despair since last Saturday's bombing. Terrorists from the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA) placed an explosive device in a fishmonger's shop in Belfast's Shankill Road at the height of weekend shopping. The group claimed that they were targeting Protestant paramilitaries in a room above the shop, as retribution for a recent string of Protestant attacks. The room was empty. Instead the bomb killed and injured innocent men, women, and children.
Two days later, an anguished Protestant minister addressed a large crowd at the Shankill bomb site, asking the question that everyone is asking: ``Why, why, why?''
Scores of political analysts, academics, and reporters will attempt to answer that question in terms of history, politics, economics, or one of the various ideologies that hobble this otherwise green, pleasant, and friendly land. But the cry of hurt from the people on both sides goes deeper. They are asking: Why after 25 years of violence and tough British security, and nearly three decades of attempts at a political solution, is it still a gruesome fact that 10 people - including one of the bombers - are killed instantly on a sunny autumn afternoon?
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that these latest killings will change nothing. One million Protestants still wish to remain British subjects. And a very large number of the province's 500,000 Catholics still aspire to Irish unity through peaceful means. A minority of militant Catholics, through the IRA and its Sinn Fein party, use the bomb and the bullet to try to dislodge the British -
something that they cannot do by democratic means because they are outnumbered by the Protestants. The explosion on Saturday will simply harden Protestant resolve to exercise their democratic rights to remain British.
Meanwhile, the despair of the community is tangible. Northern Ireland is a tiny community. Almost everyone in the province has been hit directly by violence or knows someone who has been affected. Thus the suffering of the Shankill victims is a communal pain. People cry out for peace, but no one knows how to stop the violence.
Beneath the despair is also a sense of community fear - the worst, in this writer's experience, since the 1970s when terrorist car bombs went off without warning, killing or maiming innocent people at random. The fear today has been increased by the prospect of tit-for-tat killings, and the grim warning from Protestant paramilitaries that the Irish nationalists (inevitably Catholics) will pay ``a heavy price'' for the Shankill bombings.
This physical fear is matched by the deep concern of the Protestants who believe the much-heralded but secret ``peace talks'' between John Hume, leader of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party, and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, are another means of achieving Irish unity.
The tension is evident in ordinary daily life. Taxi drivers and fast food delivery staff now carry out their duties with extreme caution, and refuse to enter certain areas. Parents now drive teenage children to the homes of nearby friends - even in ``safe'' areas - rather than let them walk the streets.
It would be comforting if there were more signs of hope. Perhaps there is one silver lining, just one: The noble dignity of the Shankill families in their hour of bereavement has been matched by the deep concern - indeed, love - of many Catholics who have sent messages of heartfelt sympathy to the Protestants in their time of need. The question facing everyone today is how to nurture that shared humanity into a practical and political solution that will banish the bomb and the bullet forever.