LAST WEEK, explosions once again tore through the great Askariya mosque in Samarra, one of the Shi'ite faith's most revered shrines. Its massive golden dome had been destroyed by bombs last year, and now its proud golden minarets are gone. Dozens of mosques, Sunni as well as Shi'ite, have been targeted in the sectarian violence. These deliberate provocations initiate cycles of attack and revenge, aiming at a broader collapse of moral order that will finally drive the American occupiers out of Iraq, fully discrediting those who embraced them.
A conflict in which victory is thus defined by chaos, strategy by the mere inflicting of social anguish, naturally organizes itself around assaults on the sacred. Such taboo-shattering violence can seem endemic to the intra-Islam civil war that has been unleashed by the American invasion, but it contains a larger warning. Something about war itself.
The common visceral reaction against attacks on the holy suggests that humans regard places of prayer, or shrines to the numinous, as exempt from violence. The word "sanctuary," after all, has come to mean the realm of safety. When I was a boy living in Germany, son of an Air Force officer, nothing demonstrated the virtue of American war making methods better than the fact that US bombers had spared the magnificent Cologne cathedral, which dated to the Middle Ages and the spires of which were the tallest structures in Europe until the Eiffel Tower. Oddly, the photos that showed the wholly devastated urban core of Cologne, with the soaring church standing alone amid rubble stretching to the horizon, left me feeling proud. In my immature mind, the virtue of our military's not having attacked that church trumped the horror of its obliteration of a whole population.
I wrote of this before, and a reader, a veteran target-picker from the Eighth Air Force, snorted at the legend, telling me that the Cologne cathedral had been spared because its spires were an essential navigational aid. Now I understand that the very idea that humans are slow to attack holy places is legendary, too. When war sets loose the impulse to hurt and to destroy, what matters most to an enemy moves to the center of the target.
The current of religion along which Islam and Christianity flow took a decisive turn when Babylonian invaders destroyed the Temple of Israel in Jerusalem in 587 BC . That destruction of God's dwelling place, together with the years of captivity that followed -- the Babylonian Exile -- changed the nature of Israel's faith. It happened again when Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 , sparking a religious crisis in Judaism, a factor in the split between the church and the synagogue. Through the centuries, the measure of war's brutality was always taken by attacks on the sacred. In Irish memory, the emblem of Oliver Cromwell's rampage remains the desecration of Catholic churches, which he turned into stables. The French Revolution defined itself by vandalizing Notre Dame and renaming it the Temple of Reason. In 1871, revolutionaries of the Paris Commune murdered the archbishop and used Notre Dame as a warehouse.
In the 20th century, the Nazi war against the Jews began with the Kristallnacht attacks on synagogues in 1938. General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, wanted the first atomic bomb used against Kyoto, a city of shrines and temples, exactly because it was the religious capital of Japan. (When Secretary of War Henry Stimson removed Kyoto from the target list because of its sacred character, he could imagine the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as virtuous.) The genocidal violence of the Khmer Rouge included the trashing of Angkor Wat, one of the most magnificent temple complexes in the world. And the arrival of a new kind of Islamic extremism was announced by nothing more powerfully than the Taliban's destruction of the two Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001.
What is going on here? These attacks are against more than places and structures. Religion is a mode of meaning, but religious meaning is more than a set of ideas. God is present in the world as meaning is present in words and symbols, and that intimate connection between the divine and its expression, including the architecture and design of sacred buildings, enables believers to experience the touch of God on earth. However much religious impulses can be complicit in violence, that ineffable and precious touch is the absolute opposite of war. Human beings can never kill each other without killing God.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.