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Power and responsibility in America and Pakistan

October 08, 2011


One day twenty years ago in Detroit, a friend and I watched the city’s mayor and a similarly jowly billionaire strip-mall developer face the television cameras to announce that they had reached an agreement about an expensive and unnecessary new baseball stadium that the people of Detroit, a city with a Third World infant-mortality rate, couldn’t afford. Such deals often turned out to be smoke and mirrors, as this one did, but invariably local media billed them as tremendously newsworthy events. The TV reporter was gushing about how much “power” had just emerged from behind closed doors. “‘You are powerless. You have no power.’ That’s what they’re saying,” said my friend in disgust.

That memory came to mind last week when, in a Facebook discussion of my article “Pakistan, Palestine, and the USA: In search of common humanity,” Mr. Khan Hassan Zia, author of Muslims and the West: A Muslim Perspective, first damned me with faint praise as “a good man with a conscience, like the majority of Americans,” then hastened to add:

“Sadly, the reality of politics is such that people like him have no control or influence over the policies of their government. They like to believe that these are formulated for the greater good by a democratic setup. The reality is that they live in an oligarchy in which politicians are subservient to specific interest groups. … It may be true that the state and the people are not the same, but it is also true that it is the people who enable the state to do what it does. To that extent the people of America have to accept responsibility for the actions of their government.”

I get the impression that Mr Zia sees himself as a hard-nosed realist and me as a dreamy-eyed Western liberal. (His full response to me is published here.) I wish he would kindly honor my actual words with the attention and respect due any writer who puts himself publicly on the line, rather than setting me up as a straw man. I agree completely that the people enable the state to do what it does, which is exactly why I assert that we’re all responsible.

Mr Zia ends his rebuttal with a flourish, claiming “Only some of us are.” But he can’t have it both ways: If I’m powerless, how can I be held responsible? Like any citizen of this planet, I am responsible. Therefore, it follows that I’m not powerless.

It’s true that I have little, if any, influence over the policies of the US government. But if I go from there to considering myself powerless to do anything useful, then it’s hard to see why I would get out of bed in the morning, much less spend most of my waking hours writing and speaking on behalf of – to cite a phrase Mr Zia dismisses as “all very well” – the need to (as I put it) “work all the harder to find common ground, and then hold it against the forces of division and enmity”. Finding common ground among human beings is very hard work indeed, particularly given that our circumstances and relative power are so unbalanced. But it’s urgently necessary work, and nothing worth doing is easy. I’m not your enemy, and I hope you’re not mine; to cite the Holy Quran, God made us nations and tribes that we may know one another, and not despise one another.

Mr Zia is justified in wondering how many Americans “have even given a thought to the more than one million innocent Iraqi men, women, and children that have been killed and four million rendered homeless and forced to live in refugee camps as a result of just the most recent Gulf War … not to speak of the crimes against humanity committed through the drone strikes in FATA that have killed thousands and terrorised the entire population for years on end.” But he then cites “someone who has just had a drone missile crash through his ceiling that killed his wife and children, and left the rest of his family screaming in pain from burns, bloody wounds, and broken bones,” and asks: “What common ground does he hope to find with this poor man and thousands of others like him who had never done any harm to the United States or its so-called war on terror?”

I hope never to experience the anguish and loss suffered by too many Waziris, and I’m sure that Mr Zia doesn’t wish that on me, any more than I wish it on him. But, unless he himself has suffered in the same way, then he is almost as remote from the Waziris’ suffering as I am. And I’m afraid that, as a Pakistani who has chosen to live in Canada, he has chosen to bear responsibility for the Canadian government’s complicity with the American government.

Finally, I wrote my previous article primarily for American readers, precisely to remind them of their own responsibility for the suffering of Pakistanis and Palestinians. It’s fair to ask what the point of that is, if we can’t influence the American government. The point of my life, or yours, is to ask: How do I, as an individual human being, live well and in good conscience, in company with others?

No, Americans are not suffering the way Waziris are, but then neither are most Pakistanis. And believe me, there is a lot of quiet desperation around America these days, as – to cite Malcolm X’s prophetic words – the chickens come home to roost. There will be plenty of suffering among ordinary Americans in coming months and years, as we begin paying the price for what we’ve allowed our government to do and our society to become. When that happens – as it’s already starting to do – please spare some compassion for us.

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.