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Grace of a grieving father speaks to a wounded Britain

Darren Staples / Reuters

Tariq Jahan holds a picture of his son Haroon Jahan, who was killed along with two other young men in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. Tarmiq Jahan asked the assembled crowd: "Why do we have to kill one another? What started these riots and what's escalated? Why are we doing this?"

By Martin Fletcher, NBC News correspondent

BIRMINGHAM, England - In these turbulent days in Britain, the grace of a grieving father shows the country how it can heal.

His friends told me what happened.

Tariq Jahan reacted quickly. Moments after a hit-and-run driver ripped through a crowd of Pakistani Muslims, he knelt over a victim, desperately giving him CPR and save his life. Until he heard these chilling words from a friend: “Tariq, your son is behind you."

He turned and saw. His 21-year-old son Haroon had been hit too, landing on his head after being tossed into the air.

Tariq Jahan held his dying boy in his arms and gave him CPR, in vain.

Haroon and two friends, brothers, also of Pakistani descent, were among a crowd of residents gathered in the streets to protect their neighborhood from thugs and looters.

Haroon Jahan, Shazzad Ali and Abdul Musavir died after being hit by a car.

One described how cars with black men had driven up and down the road, cursing and taunting the Pakistanis. One car accelerated and ripped into them, hurling the three young men into the air.  The driver raced off.

Everyone I spoke to on that street corner said they knew who did it and why: racial tensions in Birmingham are usually close to boiling point. They blamed blacks.

They also blamed the police.

A hostile crowd gathered around police constable Ahmed, furious. One shouted in his face, waving his fist, “I don’t believe in the police. If you’d done your job last night these three wouldn’t be dead today. You were drinking cups of tea at home.”

Young men swore revenge.

“It’s our turn. Guns tonight,” a young man told me, refusing to give his name. His friend joked, “Let’s go to the gym and work out, get ready.”

Rumors swirled of weapons and violence and revenge.

The violence that erupted Saturday night in north London and gripped other areas in following days has now spread hundreds of miles from the capital to a dozen towns. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

Then Tariq Jahan spoke, quiet and intense. His wisdom is worth quoting at length. In unimaginable pain, this is what he told his enraged friends, and all of Britain listened:

“Last night we lost three cherished members of our community. They were taken from us in a way that no father, mother, sister or brother should have to endure. Today we stand here to plead with all the youth to remain calm, for our communities to stand united. As we stand here this is not a race issue,” he said.

“The family has received messages of sympathy and support from all parts of the community, all faiths, all colors and backgrounds. Please respect the memory of our sons and the grief of our family and loved ones by staying away from trouble and not going out tonight. Basically, I lost my son. Blacks, Asians, Whites, we all live in the same community. Why do we have to kill one another? What started these riots and what’s escalated? Why are we doing this? I lost my son, step forward if you want to lose your sons, otherwise calm down and go home please.”

Tariq Jahan was heard. Since his son and two friends died, the violence and looting has almost died with them. It’s probably more due to the robust, if somewhat late, police clampdown on city centers than his call for sanity, but Tariq Jahan’s impassioned appeal will echo through the land.

Forget about revenge, he said, and let the law follow its path.

Already police have arrested a man and charged him with the killings. In London alone more than 800 people have been arrested for looting, theft and violence, and security camera pictures of rioters are circulating with appeals for people to identify the perpetrators. The law is taking its course and justice will be done, says Prime Minister David Cameron.

But as a nation licks its wounds and everyone wonders how on earth all this could have happened, a grieving father, an immigrant from Pakistan who made his home in the motherland, will stand as the rallying call for sanity and unity in the United Kingdom.