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Is America paying attention?


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For purposes of this column, I mean by “America” not the state or the establishment, but the society. It's important to draw that distinction, especially these days as the domestic conversation in America becomes at once more strident and more confused at both the official and the popular level. I won't try to give Dawn's readers in Pakistan even a thumbnail summary here of just how confused and at odds with itself American society has become; please take my word for it for now, and I promise to write more about it later if you want. There's a lot to say. From the outside, especially to those on the receiving end of its brute power, America might look monolithic and purposeful, but it's really neither of those things.

I just finished taking a rather grueling but excellent university course in the history of the Mughal Empire. Fascinating questions haunt the late Mughal story after the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707: Did the empire decline, or did it rather decentralise? Does it matter which of those verbs we choose to use to describe what happened? And might modern South Asia have developed more or less peaceably – or at least with its indigenous integrity intact – into a cluster of regional kingdoms, if not for the impact of the British East India Company especially after 1757?

These rhetorical questions are not really so far afield from 21st-century America, believe it or not. The analogy is in the way both the ideology of an imperial state long in the habit of claiming hegemonic prerogatives, and the self-confidence of the empire's domestic society, have become hollowed out, emptied of meaning and momentum, but not yet replaced by a new set of plausible stories. The best people living through such a situation can do is to make things up as they go along. That's what happened in proto-post-Mughal South Asia in the 18th century, and something like that is happening in America today.

I'm not saying that America is about to break apart. What I am saying is that Americans are no longer paying respect to the institutions and collective habits that for many decades effectively (if not always honestly or benevolently) governed our national life. Nor are we listening to each other anymore. And if, amid the sound and fury of our domestic life, Americans are not listening to each other, you can be sure we're not listening much to the outside world either. All too obviously this is a serious problem, especially when American soldiers urinate on dead Afghans or massacre women and children in their sleep.

Sunday, March 11 was one of those mornings when I woke up with the intention of minding my own business while enjoying my first cup of coffee, only to be walloped by the latest horrific news from Afghanistan. So I wrote an article very explicitly comparing the futile American war effort in Afghanistan with the war we spent a decade losing in Vietnam. I published the article on my own website, and it was excerpted on, but the version I want to draw your attention to is on the Huffington Post, the widely read liberal Web publication. My article was featured on the Huffington Post's front page – one reader pointed out that, tellingly, it was the only article on the topic so featured – and it got an unusual number of reader comments. If you want to get a sense of what Americans are thinking and saying about Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wake of the massacre last Sunday outside Kandahar, I suggest reading those comments as fairly representative.

In the wake of the recent string of shocking American-instigated incidents in Afghanistan, the most disturbing thing to me here in America is not that some Americans approve of or excuse them, but that most Americans seem hardly to have noticed them. We make rueful jokes about how the American attention span is like a dog in a park full of squirrels, but that's not really very funny. Our fickleness and ignorance have real-world consequences. I don't have a complete solution to that, or the power to fix it fully, but I do know what needs to be done. Educating and engaging the American public about the world and our involvement in it is a long, hard slog, but it's necessary work.

My Huffington Post article resulted in a television interview with Keith Olbermann, a national political talk show host. In the American park full of squirrels, when you get a few minutes of people's attention you try to get the most important points across. So, when Keith Olbermann asked me if anything could be done to repair the damage in the wake of the Kandahar massacre, I referred to the quote in my article from my friend Todd Shea. Todd, who has done lifesaving work in Pakistan ever since the 2005 earthquake, argues that “if US leaders had treated [Pakistanis and Afghans] as important in a human way [after the 1980s Afghan war], then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now.”

I quoted Todd, then I asked Keith Olbermann: “Do we acknowledge our shared humanity with Pakistanis, with Afghans, with Muslims – with the Taliban for that matter? That's really where it has to begin. … People all over the world need to believe, genuinely, that Americans know them to be human beings. And I really don't think a lot of people in the world are confident of that at this point.”


Ethan Casey is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (13) Closed

salmaan peerzada
Mar 16, 2012 07:00pm
Introducing a bit of reality in the current debate -- something that would truely benifit the American people !
j. von hettlingen
Mar 16, 2012 10:42pm
Is America paying attention? Well, it depends! There are over 300 million Americans. Many of them have been living in a world of complacency and laissez-faire for decades and don’t know how to adapt themselves to the ever-changing and globalised world. Doing little to improve their educational system, they see it as an affront to compete with better educated foreigners at home and abroad. Just as Alexis de Tocqueville saw their ancestors in 1831, they are easily manipulated and the GOP presidential candidates epitomise the dated world views they have adopted in the media. Their abhorrence to social-democracy, welfare system and social equality are outspoken, denying themselves the possibility to learn from their European peers. Americans are narrowing their horizon in recent years and focus more and more on their personal welfare, without realising that they are prisoners of their fear and bigotry. Living in a world of interdependence, they can no longer turn a blind eye to what’s going on in other parts of the world. It wouldn’t help to resort - once again - to George Kennan’s policy of containment.
Mar 16, 2012 11:35pm
Yet another Chomsky in the making, apologizing for America even when none are required and necessary, and criticizing America when criticism of the "other" in the transactions are more relevant. To what end is this endeavor? Sucking up is NOT hard to do.
d. r. brown
Mar 17, 2012 11:19am
Insightful. I hope you are a journalist, a journalist in the making or contributing to discussion in another meaningful way. There is a distinct lack of insight in a significant number of contemporary journalists and it would help to reverse this trend.
john kilcher
Mar 17, 2012 03:21pm
With the never ending streaming of "buzz news", there is no doubt in my mind that the average American really cares about the goings on in Central Asia. America will indeed reap what it sows under the guise of our "National Interests", which is nothing more than oil and precious minerals in Central Asia.
Mar 17, 2012 05:17pm
You ask a valid question, "do we acknowledge our shared humanity with Pakistan, Afghan, Muslims, Taliban...?" I believe most Americans do. Americans also acknowledge te humanity of women, children, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, gays, foreigners, animals, etc. Do Pakistan, Afghans, Muslims, and the Taliban acknowledge that too? That is the question I would like to ask.
Mar 17, 2012 06:28pm
I hope they pay attention before it gets too late. Thats my experience; 35000 dead Pakistanis later.
Mar 17, 2012 06:29pm
I love reading the contradictory perspectives in Pakistan media. In the same issue will be a condemnation of the American congress because they discuss their concern for the balochistan people, and at the same time accuse Americans of not paying attention to Pakistan.
Mar 18, 2012 02:29am
Finally an American who seems to walk and talk like a human being. I know you're not alone, but unfortunately there's not many Americans who have this sort of knowledge that you do neither do they see the Muslim world through the same lens as you do. Thank you Mr. Casey, your work is greatly appreciated. Please keep up the good work!
jonny malik
Mar 18, 2012 10:41pm
Americans are NOT like europeans, thers is a lot of internal strife and just beneath the surface, the disease of racism is very much alive here in US. There may be a count of 300 million Americans, but a fraction of that really consider themselves as true Americans and hold other fellow Americans in contempt based on the race/religion and other factors. If you live in US, you realize the callousness of people who want to take away SOCIAL SAFETY NETS of american governing systems. You realize that the ghastly attempt to produce a class warfare and put a vast majority of masses in economic and social slavery path and take away some of the basic benefits as being able to see a doctor. WHEN PEOPLE CAN'T DO JUSTICE UPON THEMSELVES AND THEIR FELLOW COUNTRYMEN, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT FROM THEM IF YOU ARE NOT EVEN CLOSELY RELATED TO SUCH SOCIETY IN ANY WAY SUCH AS RACE, RELIGION, HERITAGE, LIFE STYLE??? Pakistanis and Afghanis and the rest of the world, hoping for American to get NICE and be NICE to them have to get out of this LaLa land and start helping themselves. Don't look at the past in a sense of trying to find someone to blame... just pick up from this point on and start cleaning up.
Fred Wells
Mar 19, 2012 02:07am
Interesting. It is terrible when one deranged us solder kills randomly which I agree but to draw a conclusion America does not listen or care is silly. America has over a thousand mosques and Hindi-temples and Pakistan has how many Christian churches?
K. K. Lim
Mar 19, 2012 03:19am
The general level of education of the US public needs to be improved drastically. For a start teach world history and geography. How many of your Senators and Congress have any idea what the world outside the US is ?
Mar 19, 2012 07:02am
Unfortunately, Mr. Casey is simply trading on standard-issue liberal talking points here, playing the age-old game of talking down the Americans he disagrees with and does not like in order to ingratiate himself with a foreign audience. Ironically, this approach, treating a foreign audience as a foil for one's domestic disputes and to signal status that one is just not like those Fox News watching Americans, is many times more insulting and degrading to Pakistanis than a random American unaware of much of what is going on in Central or South Asia. I am American and have spent my working life 50/50 overseas. While it is no doubt true that a great many Americans are badly informed and still more don't seem to care, I do not find the United States very unique in this regard. One does not have to search hard to find uninformed Britons, Chinese or, even, Pakistanis. What I can assure readers of Dawn is that there are millions of Americans who are both very well informed and who care deeply about what our government is doing in Afghanistan and with regard to Pakistan. But, please, don't take my word for it. Rather than relying on Mr. Casey's enlightened college freshman routine, search for American blogs, news sites and other forms of alternative discussion away from the much-hated main-stream media here in the U.S. (And, please note, this main stream media which Mr. Casey decries is controlled lock, stock and barrel by his ideological brothers). There are many of us here who believe that both of our political parties and our government have gone badly off the rails. We have yet to find our voice. But we are there. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.