Is America Any Different from Pakistan?
Postscript, January 13: By all accounts, President Obama rose to the occasion in his speech in Tucson. Garry Wills is calling it Obama’s finest hour. Maybe, just maybe, this will be remembered as the moment Sarah Palin overreached, like Joe McCarthy, and America suddenly became sane again.
SEATTLE, JANUARY 12 – So now we know: The American right wing knows no shame and apparently will stop at nothing to bully the rest of us into shutting up and taking whatever they dish out.
On the sound principle – understood by right-wingers but not by liberals – that the best defense is a good offense, Sarah Palin has released a self-exonerating video statement asserting that “acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own.” The right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin has coined the phrase “Tucson massacre opportunists.” And the tendentiously “moderate” New York Times columnist David Brooks – whose previous low point, a year ago just after the earthquake, was blaming the victims in “places like Haiti” for lacking “middle-class values” – writes of “vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.” Meanwhile, a CBS News poll tells us that 57% of Americans reject any connection between the attack and the country’s political atmosphere. That’s the problem with democracy: sometimes the majority can be dead wrong.
And, as I said in my last article, if we Americans are going to dish it out to countries like Pakistan about how they should keep their radical elements in check, we need to be able to take it too. “The best way to forestall the development of a scenario is to keep your events episodic,” wrote Norman Mailer in his book Oswald’s Tale. This is what the American establishment and its media machine are masterful at: chopping the world up into distinct “stories” and doling them out severally, semi-intentionally creating what Ronald Reagan’s people called plausible deniability. But, as someone who grew up deep within white America and who knows Pakistan well enough to have written two books about it, I see all too many parallels.
What brings these into stark relief is the spooky coincidence of the assassination of Salmaan Taseer in Islamabad and, days later, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. In an analysis in The Times of India to which I contributed a comment, Atul Sethi wrote:
The slow death of outspoken liberalism out in public [in Pakistan] has meant that clerics refused to lead the prayers at Taseer’s funeral, fearing reprisal from Islamist hardliners. The mood, says an observer, is one of extreme caution and “even moderate groups do not want to appear to be supporting Taseer’s cause.” The murder was not mentioned at all in the many sermons delivered after Friday prayers in mosques across Islamabad. [G Parthasarthy, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan], for one, is not surprised. “When it comes to the blasphemy law, nobody is going to question its premise after Taseer’s killing.”
The analogy in America is to the right wing’s systematic encroachment on all public discourse, appropriation of all patriotic symbols and words (including “tea party”), and brazen aggression in accusing others of playing politics with a tragedy, when that is exactly what they themselves are doing. Those of us who instantly noted the Tucson attack’s political context were correct in doing so, and Paul Krugman was absolutely right to say this:
It’s true that the shooter in Arizona appears to have been mentally troubled. But that doesn’t mean that his act can or should be treated as an isolated event, having nothing to do with the national climate.
That should go without saying, and the fact that it needs to be said at all is an indicator of the national climate. What’s even worse is that America’s radical elements, led by Sarah Palin and her ilk, are trying to stigmatize stating the obvious and enforce a corrosive, de-politicized national piety, whose effect would be to leave them dictating the terms of any conversation. Within 48 hours of the shooting, Krugman had predicted precisely such a move:
So will the Arizona massacre make our discourse less toxic? It’s really up to G.O.P. leaders. Will they accept the reality of what’s happening to America, and take a stand against eliminationist rhetoric? Or will they try to dismiss the massacre as the mere act of a deranged individual, and go on as before?
One more thing needs to be said. An American friend of mine, of Pakistani origin, asks why, in all the commentary that’s spewed forth since Saturday, no one has used the word “terrorism.” What is it that allows us to consider Jared Loughner a mentally troubled young man acting alone and Faisal Shahzad, the mentally troubled young U.S. citizen who tried to blow up Times Square last May, a terrorist “Made in Pakistan” (as he was portrayed in breathless TV reports at the time)? We need to accept responsibility for the fact that Jared Loughner was made in America.
This is why it’s especially important – as I’ve been tub-thumping for a while now – for Pakistanis and other Muslims who are members of American society to continue becoming more visibly active, not only in civic affairs but in this country’s political life. If you lie low, you will continue to find yourselves silenced, caricatured and scapegoated. And America needs your involvement, because this society urgently needs to rediscover its conscience and its soul.
ETHAN CASEY is the author of 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 of Learning from Haiti, to published in fall 2011, and collaborating with filmmaker Naeem Randhawa on a collection of stories by and about Muslims living in America. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans