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One of the questions that people actually don’t ask me very often is why I do what I do. There’s the bin Laden ruining my study abroad piece, of course, but the real answer is much, much deeper.

I’ve heard several versions of the details of the story below after comparing the newspaper accounts with what I had been told more directly, but the beginning and the end are the same and they are what counts.

Diyala Province, Iraq, Summer 2009:

Things had been pretty quiet as far as insurgent activity, though there had been a consistent presence in the area in the past (and it continues–the Provincial Capital still frequently gets bombed). But things were fairly calm for the summer. Police arrested people and politicians went to work and tried not to be corrupt. One such man, an elected member of the Provincial Council, had a son who was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. He went to school. He played soccer. He was probably a bit mischievous at home.

Until the day he was kidnapped.

Insurgents often have trouble with financing. If you don’t have a big sponsor, sometimes you have to find your own money and kidnap/ransom schemes are one way to do that. This politician’s son was a good target because his dad had access to more money than your average person.

They had had the boy for a few days and had issued their ransom note. We were all on edge. I heard the father paid the money, but read that he hadn’t managed to, so I’m uncertain of whether money changed hands. In the end, it doesn’t matter.

Because what I do know is that the kidnappers did not give the boy back.

They found his body a couple of days later in a small stream. I saw the pictures. From head to toe, he was covered in bruises and the occasional burn from what looked like a hot iron. There were marks on his wrists and ankles of where he had been tied up. His body was contorted and broken, his face twisted in agony. It was brutally clear he had been tortured to death.

I have a strong ability to understand other people and what motivates them, even if I absolutely disagree with their ends or methods. And I know that othering people, convincing yourself that they are evil or not quite human is what helps us to kill. But I cannot fathom how or why anyone, anywhere could do that to a child. It is beyond the realm of anything I can conceive of. It is humanity at its very worst and the pictures left me breathless in horror.

His parents were, of course, distraught. In their pain and anger, they did something remarkable. When someone dies in the Middle East, their families often post fliers with the deceased’s photo around town to notify people. This boy’s parents did that, using a picture of him standing in a team uniform with a soccer ball. In an unprecedented and potentially dangerous move, they put of picture of his mangled body as it had been found next to it. They also included a description of what had happened and a condemnation of anyone who would do or support this kind of activity. They turned their grief into a call to action. They couldn’t bring their son back, but maybe they could do something to prevent it happening to anyone else.

Can you argue that this happened at least in part because the U.S. invaded and created a space for chaos and violence? Sure. Can you also argue that Saddam did just as bad or worse? That the Taliban regime did? That warlords in Africa or drug lords in South America do? Also yes. That terrible things happen here at home every day? Absolutely. There are unthinkable atrocities all around us that most of us never even see, things that would break our hearts if we dared to look.

I choose to see them, to look into the face of the devil. I don’t know if what I do actually makes a big difference or any difference at all, but I’ll be damned if I ever stop trying.