Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I’ve been asked a few times today what my thoughts were on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto1 today in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.
Let me get a disclaimer out of the way: this is not a post in which I express annoyance at Americans asking me questions about Pakistan simply because I am of Pakistani descent. I have no such annoyance. If any exists, it is at myself for not being able to adequately answer all of their questions. Because the truth is that it would be gross misrepresentation to present myself as any sort of authority on the country of my birth.
My knowledge of Pakistani politics is hardly what it could or should be. I do not make that statement by way of saying that I should know more about Pakistani politics because I’m Pakistani, or even because I’m somebody with family actually living in ‘Pindi. I’m not even saying that I should know more because one of my relatives-by-marriage happens to be the former Prime Minister of Pakistan.
I’m saying I should know more because every American should know more about Pakistani politics. They should also know more about Iraqi politics, about Iranian politics, about Afghani, Russian, British, French, Venezuelan, Cuban, Canadian, Sudanese, Australian, German, Italian, Polish, Egyptian, Israeli, Saudi, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, North Korean, South Korean, Indonesian, Spanish, Mexican, Brazilian, etcetera etcetera, politics.
Yes, that is an awful lot of countries to keep track of. That is the unfortunate price of being a world superpower, of having the inclination and ability to converse with the leaders and, all too often, meddle in the affairs of other countries. That is the price, and far too many of us have yet to make their first payments, have let the screaming red notifications pile up in the corner, and now the pounding at the door is a collection agent barking in a voice like burning jet fuel. And you cannot put off the payment forever. One way or another, our debts are brought to bear against us.
What little I know of Bhutto has been gleaned well after the facts have been mulled over and tossed through the spin cycle. She is descended from Pakistani political royalty; she was married to a man who was as corrupt as salted soil; she was the first woman to head an Islamic nation. (This fact will often get trotted out as a counter to the accusations that Islamic nations are “backward”–who are Americans to talk about backward, after all, when they can barely let a woman run for President, much less elect one, in over 200 years of establishment?) She returned from exile as an opposition force to the gradually reconfiguring dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf; she was simultaneously celebrated and vilified; she was targeted; and as happens often with people who are targeted, she was cut down.
But how do I “feel” about her death? My reaction boils down to something very academic and, yes, very much the reaction of somebody able to view the consequences from a distance.
“What does this mean, and what will it cause?”
My mother was in Pakistan some time ago, before my wedding, and when she came back one of the observations she made about the nation that has stuck with me is that the middle class of Pakistan is disappearing. There is a great chasm opening up where the middle class used to be, and those who did not fall into the rift managed to jump to either the side of the Very Rich or the Very Poor.
This is dangerous stuff. A country divided so drastically upon economic lines becomes a feeding ground for power grabs and insidious control mechanisms. You want to know why Islamic fundamentalism has gradually been on the rise in Pakistan? Look to the hungry and hopeless being told by radical clerics that dignity and the power to strike down their oppressors can be found through one Q’uranic verse and high explosives. You want to know why martial law gets declared in Pakistan at the drop of a hat? Look to the powerful and wealthy, worried about these same hungry and hopeless and newly re-converted, coming to take away their comfortable lives.
My connection with Pakistan is one based on genetics and incidental technicalities. I am a naturalized American citizen, for example, not a native-born American, although this country is the one I’ve lived in all my life, this country is the one I associate with that vexing idea of nationality.
I can’t ever be President. But I sure as hell don’t want that job, so that’s all right.
And I think about all the other times I’ve read about honor killings in Pakistan, or gang rapes in the name of cultural norms, about a country so hellbent on having nuclear weapons that they rushed full-speed into devising the arsenal before figuring out how to keep that arsenal safe from people who would use it to set the world on fire. I think about riots over cartoons, riots over books and movies, riots over the slightest possible insult. I think about the riots that will surely arise over the next few days, as people convinced that their grief over Bhutto’s death demands overzealous displays of anger and death.
I think about the personalities of members of my own family, about the number of times I have begged my mother2 to calm down about small setbacks, how I wish she wouldn’t explain that her crippling moments of sadness are a requirement of her love for her children.
I think about that and realize the futility of asking her. It’s not, as I thought, a facet of her personality; it’s a facet of her upbringing and has been with her for twice the time I have existed at all. Her culture is one of extreme passions and emotional responses, her culture demands large shows of these passions in order to indicate that the feelings are in fact real.
So what do I feel about Bhutto’s death? I feel fortunate that I have not heard of any member of my family being killed or wounded in the attack. I feel an aching curiosity of what might have been, had she survived and possibly re-assumed control of the nation. I feel a tiny spark of suspicion towards the government of Pervez Musharraf, even though the man stands little to gain in the long term by having Bhutto martyred in so dramatic a fashion.
I also feel sad for my parents, and my uncles and aunts, all of whom are peace-loving people who only want to build happy lives for themselves and their children. I feel sad that they are unfortunate enough to be such peace-loving people during a time when a not-insignificant number of their countrymen and religious brethren seem obsessed by the desire to prove themselves murderous savages. I feel sad that they may each, at some point, be required to endure the idiotic prejudices of television pundits, newspaper columnists, radio squawkers, all of whom demand them to answer for the sins of these murderous savages.
I feel frustration at our inability to stop committing such terrible and ultimately meaningless acts of violence.
When I say this, I am not talking so much about “Pakistanis,” or “Muslims,” I am talking about “people.”
Right this moment…right this moment, yes, I am talking about “Pakistanis.” I am talking about “Muslims.”
Right this moment, the decision is theirs. The choice to not keep turning this wheel is theirs. I wish I could have faith that they would make that choice.
1 When the banner first ran over the home page, it read simply “Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007”, a description that usually cues you into a natural death of some kind. This was eventually changed to “Benazir Bhutto assassinated.” Later that day, Salon ran a headline that stated “Benazir Bhutto killed” until it, too, was changed to “Benazir Bhutto assassinated.”–so as to make it clear, perhaps, that Bhutto did not die in a plane crash or similar accident, but was in fact purposefully, and with political underpinnings, murdered. (Actually, it originally said “Benizar Bhutto killed” until perturbed letter writers pointed out the spelling error.) It was an interesting lesson in the way we’ve been trained to handle media flags, the status of political celebrities versus those of mere public celebrities, and the gamut of different emotional responses that can occur when a prominent figure alternately dies, is killed, is murdered, or is assassinated.
For the record, my initial response to “Benazir Bhutto 1953-2007” was “Somebody killed her.” That is the next lesson.
2 Recently, I discovered that my mother was reading this journal. This is at least part of why I have posted here so infrequently as of late–that knowledge of audience was making me skittish. I have, over the course of time, slowly dropped away most of my anonymity structures…I no longer give people pseudonyms, and I don’t remember the last time I posted a “Friends Only” entry. I use my real name, and my real location, and anybody with cursory knowledge of Google can find me pretty easily. I can’t tell you why I put myself out there so brazenly. I suppose the most rational reason is that it simply takes less effort than it does to play disguise games.
In any case, I am aware that my mother may read this entry, may bristle at the brief discussion of our relationship dynamics. I would hope that she’d understand that I’m not criticizing her, above. I’m trying to say that I understand. I don’t agree and I wish things were different. But I understand. And if she didn’t realize that above, I’d hope she read far enough into this footnote to see it written out so plainly.