The recent attempt to bomb Times Square in New York evokes many thoughts. One that lingers, at a time like this, is a storyline from an old movie about a terrible famine in British India around the time of World War II. The film wasAshani Sanket (“Distant Thunder”), a masterpiece in celluloid crafted by Satyajit Ray.
During the 1940s in Bengal, a manmade famine caused countless deaths, and Ray conveyed vividly how the simple lives of villagers were forever transformed, as hunger and starvation ravaged their lives. The food that they had depended on for survival was diverted to feed the British army fighting the Japanese instead. In other words, an unrelated event far away had a powerful impact on the lives of the unsuspecting villagers. The “Distant Thunder” of the war had devastating consequences for people not involved in it.
Jump to America and June 2010, and a man by the name of Faisal Shahzad is in custody; a person repeatedly emphasized in the media as a Pakistani-American (Note: not as just a Muslim this time). He is charged with attempting to carry out a bomb attack in New York City’s Times Square. Guilty or not, the courts will take it from here, but the fallout from this, thankfully, failed attempt raises many questions and impacts many more lives than one might think.
The first question to ask is—why is Pakistan always somehow involved? The second, what was this guy thinking? And last, but not least, what motivates people like him?
There are no easy answers to these questions. But when I attended a recent press conference at one of the oldest mosques in America (held by the Pakistani American Association of Sacramento), I heard universal condemnation of the Times Square bombing attempt, and I could sense that the community was angry and alarmed. Pakistanis have roots in California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin and Central valley regions going back about a hundred years (since long before the partition of India). Several generations have now lived and died here. They have been major contributors to this community and country as farmers, doctors, engineers, and even law enforcement officials. Needless to say, they are currently going through a crisis not of their making. One of their responses to this crisis has been to inform members of the Pakistani-American community nationwide to keep their eyes open for any potential troublemakers in their midst.
But let us now take a look back.
These Frankensteins created along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border have had many facilitators, if not parents. Pakistan is not the lone mad-scientist responsible. The DNA of this monster can be traced to Washington’s efforts to defeat the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when the Pakistani people were being led down the path of extremism by an American-supported dictator by the name of General Zia-ul-Haq. A short term decision was made during that time to use the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line against the Soviets because of their well-known fighting abilities. To top it off, Arabs from all over the Middle East were encouraged to come and join the fight. One of them was Osama bin Laden.
Overall, a really poor job was done to wind down this operation after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Ironically, both the Pakistani army and the United States today are fighting the same people (and the next generation) that they had once trained and equipped. But caution is advised in finding a military solution now.
One cannot just blame the Pashtuns and declare open war on them. Many have tried that route before in history. Their defeats have always been temporary and their revenge, at a time or place of their choosing, is legendary. Pashtun energy needs to be diverted back towards rebuilding Afghanistan. The first step towards that effort should be to try and change their perception that their current low position on the Afghan power structure totem pole is because of the United States. That is not an easy task, but to successfully confront the Taliban it is absolutely necessary.
Locally, what needs to be understood is that Pakistani-Americans cannot change Pakistan. Some, like this writer, have learnt this bitter lesson from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. Wishful thinking is not a good strategy and neither is support for individuals alone. What should be encouraged in Pakistan are institution building, non-Madrassah education, and cultural exchange programs. And the bottom line is that good relations between the United States and Pakistan are especially desirable for our community. In light of that fact, there should be no barriers between Pakistani-Americans and local law enforcement agencies in America. As one speaker at the mosque press conference pointed out, Pakistani-Americans must have “zero tolerance” for terrorism.
Returning to the Times Square bombing and Shahzad, what the Pakistani Americans first need to do is thank God that the attempt did not succeed. Then this message needs to be sent to Shahzad: Your attempt to kill innocent people was despicable and we hope that they throw the book at you. You may not have succeeded in setting off a bomb in Times Square, but you did succeed in detonating thousands of smaller, no less sinister, devices in the living rooms and neighborhoods of Pakistani-Americans all over America. The damage that you have caused to Pashtuns, Pakistanis, and Muslims worldwide is immeasurable. It has been reported that you may have been retaliating to drone attacks. Were you trying to invite a B52 response instead? I don’t believe you know what the B52s can do. Your gift to Pakistanis was a warning of “severe consequences” from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which cannot be taken lightly. The “Distant Thunder” of your unexploded bomb has been heard loud and clear. And the only words that come to mind at the moment that might be acceptable to print are “God Damn You.”
Ras Siddiqui is a South Asian writer and journalist based in Sacramento.