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`Soft' Target Tragedies

SHE was the 52nd victim this year, the 3,163rd since 1969.

Kathleen O'Reagan, a mother of five who was six-months pregnant, was shot to death Aug. 7 in her home in Greencastle, Northern Ireland. Her children, all under 8 years of age, were in the house at the time; her 17-month-old was in the same room.

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An extremist Protestant group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, unapologetically claimed responsibility. Mrs. O'Reagan and her husband, Patrick, who was out at the time, were to be executed as Irish Republican Army activists, the group said. ``Brace yourselves for death, because you're going to see plenty of it,'' a statement issued by the group read.

O'Reagan was the latest of the ``soft'' targets, women attacked in their homes, a particularly despicable turn in the ongoing tragedy in Northern Ireland. So far this year:

* Another group, calling itself the Ulster Freedom Fighters, murdered Theresa Clinton in April, firing 17 shots through a window. Her husband had stood for election as a member of Sinn Fein in 1989.

* In May, 76-year-old Roseanne Mallon was fatally shot in her home. Her murder was unintended, the Ulster Volunteer Force said; her nephew had been the target.

* In July, the IRA killed Caroline Moreland, a Roman Catholic mother in west Belfast. It said she was a police informer; her family has denied the claim.

One theory holds that these apparently senseless killings are a grisly political game aimed at inviting retaliatory attacks, then claiming sympathy as the most-aggrieved party. This twisted logic cannot be allowed to take any root or reap any rewards.

The Anglo-Irish Downing Street Declaration calls for steps toward an equitable political solution and includes as a fundamental point a cessation of all violence. These outbursts show willful disdain for the declaration and the hope it offers. But have the extremists finally overplayed their hand? Will this new low be enough to fully awaken peaceful counteraction?

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A solution in Northern Ireland is being sought mightily by the governments in Dublin and London. But it cannot be accomplished in distant capitals alone. The deep disgust these incidents have provoked in people of all political stripes in Northern Ireland itself must be converted into firm, united action for political compromise and against the repugnant, dead-end strategy of violence.

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