What could have been in the mind of a U.S. Army staff sergeant who military officials say went methodically from house to house in Afghanistan on Sunday and killed 16 Afghan civilians, including women and children?
Had the stress of war simply made him snap? Was he seeking revenge for the recent murders of six U.S. soldiers by Afghans angry over the accidental burning of some copies of the Quran, Islam's holy book? Or was it something else?
We don't know at this point.
What we do know is that the killings will spur a backlash in Afghanistan and will complicate our efforts to root out terrorism there -- efforts which began with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan more than 10 years ago after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. The United States invaded Afghanistan because the radical Muslim Taliban regime harbored 9/11 terrorist Osama bin Laden.
It seems at least possible that our nation will now speed the planned end of our combat role in Afghanistan, something that is currently slated to take place in 2013. The United States plans to have a continuing role in training Afghan forces through 2014.
The apparent killings by a U.S. soldier are shocking not only because of the horror of the acts themselves, but because they represent such a stark contrast to the generally courageous and noble behavior of the overwhelming majority of our troops.
Whatever comes of these tragic events, the American people should reject outright any attempt to smear the worthy service of vast numbers of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama rightly said as much in addressing the shootings: "This incident is tragic and shocking, and does not represent the exceptional character of our military and the respect that the United States has for the people of Afghanistan," he noted in a statement.
There is heartbreak and revulsion over what the Army sergeant is accused of doing, and if he is in fact guilty, the punishment should be severe. But it should not become a pretext for besmirching the work of our soldiers as a whole, who have persevered honorably in their duties despite incredibly difficult circumstances.
At the same time, as bad as things may be in Afghanistan, we should be extremely cautious about withdrawing too hastily. The Taliban who harbored al-Qaida before 9/11 are still a force in Afghanistan and could easily rise to power again. A rapid, disorderly withdrawal of U.S. forces would only embolden the Taliban and invite a return to the conditions that helped precipitate our initial invasion of Afghanistan.