Will The Real America Please Stand Up?

Those of us who are concerned about the fate of Pakistan were still reeling from the January 4 assassination of Punjab governor and liberal newspaper publisher Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad, when we heard about the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. What does one have to do with the other? All too much.

Those of us who are concerned about the fate of Pakistan were still reeling from the January 4 assassination of Punjab governor and liberal newspaper publisher Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad, when we heard about the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. What does one have to do with the other? All too much.

On Friday I responded to a query from a Times of India reporter by calling the Taseer killing “extremely ominous.” I followed that statement of the obvious with this sentence: “An aggressive, self-righteous and over-confident radical element, a feckless and compromised central government, and a brave but besieged liberal class add up to a country in severe crisis.” That’s accurate enough as a description of Pakistan, but Americans who can dish out this sort of thing need to be able to take it too (and I’m not sure I’m so generous as to call my own country’s liberal class “brave”). What kind of society are we willing to allow ourselves to live in? At the very least, it’s high time we Americans knocked off the self-righteousness that permits us to judge Pakistan and took a long, hard look in the mirror.

In April 1995, I was in Lahore when I learned about the bombing in Oklahoma City. You’ll remember that the widespread initial assumption was that it must have been the doing of Islamic fundamentalists – and it wasn’t, was it? In Delhi a few days later, a Kashmiri friend exclaimed to me: “There was bomb blast in America!” What struck me was that he was surprised not that there had been a bomb blast per se, but that there had been one in America, of all places. In my travels to that point, I had come to know that bomb blasts happen all the time around the subcontinent. Now they happened in America too. This was why I had left Wisconsin: to learn that the serene small-town world I came from was of a piece with the world at large. Oddly, I found my new awareness comforting.

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Why comforting? Because it’s better to know the truth than to live in a fictionalized world where everything’s all right. Why is that better? Because wishing doesn’t make it so. We’re all in this together, and everything is very far from all right. And the truth is that America isn’t any different, after all, from the rest of the world. We’re just another Third World country – only bigger. And the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

These are truths Americans have been learning the hard way in the long years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. When a radicalized lumpen member of American society’s mainstream blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, I thought of something Norman Mailer had written in 1962: that ”so long as there is a cold war, there are no politics of consequence in America.” Not to put too fine a point on it but, since we stopped having the Russians to kick around, American politics have become all too consequential. We now kick each other around instead – as well as, of course, vulnerable minorities like Latinos and Muslims.

Just the other day, the New York Review of Books blog published an item by Christian Caryl titled “Pakistan: When the State Loses Control”:

It has become extremely hard to see how anyone can pull the country’s political culture back from the brink. … No, what’s particularly worrisome about this [Salmaan Taseer] case is the failure of the Pakistani political system to protect one of its own. When the state surrenders its monopoly on violence to those who stand outside of it, it can no longer be described as a functioning state. Pakistan’s political institutions are supposed to represent the many different parties and groups that participate in the country’s civic life, yet now state power is succumbing to the demands of an exclusionist view of the world that can benefit only a particular few. In the weeks and months preceding his assassination, Taseer had been courageously campaigning—in the face of direct threats—to overturn an anti-blasphemy law that had been frequently abused to condemn people of minority faiths.

Substitute “America” for “Pakistan,” read that passage again, and recall that Congresswoman Giffords has been an outspoken opponent of Arizona’s new immigration law and received death threats and attacks on her office after voting for the Obama administration’s health-care bill.

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Sarah Palin, whose publication of a map depicting crosshairs targeting Democratic members of Congress, including Giffords, has been noted since the shooting, infamously spoke during the 2008 campaign of “the real America.” I don’t concede Sarah Palin’s right to identify or speak for the real America. In fact, I insist that she does not. But will the real America please stand up?

Those of us who would speak for the real America need to bear in mind, though, that this isn’t cold war-era armchair politics anymore. Are we prepared to show as much physical, moral and political courage as Gabrielle Giffords and Salmaan Taseer did? And the next time we go to Safeway to buy groceries, will we remember to feel compassion for the millions of innocent Pakistanis who put themselves in harm’s way from suicide bombers every time they do the same?

ETHAN CASEY is the author of the travel books Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime in Haiti for publication in 2011. He can be emailed at ethan@ethancasey.com and his books and articles are available online at www.ethancasey.com/books/ and www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans

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