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Power and responsibility in America and Pakistan

Published Oct 08, 2011 06:49am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

BRR Oct 08, 2011 11:13pm
Mr. Casey might as well wait a lifetime and not see that compassion coming, not because it is not needed or desired, but rather due to a wide spread narrative that characterizes the west as evil and root of all bad that happens in Muslim societies.
Syed Akhtar Oct 09, 2011 02:27am
Pakistan and America are equally to share blame for the war mashed climate that this planet is buried under. Now is it worth quantifying the amount of innocent blood these two countries have spilled in the last 'I don't know how many years'? Can't the governments of both countries lower their profiles for some years, and focus more on the development of intellectual properties and peace within their respective countries.? Can't this so called international interest be relegated for better causes? The world is tired of this aimless war. It has to stop!
Shakeel.Quddus Oct 09, 2011 07:57am
True, most of the Pakistanis are not suffering 'the way' most of the Waziris in tribal areas are suffering due to the drone attacks. Then 80% of the Americans are not suffering 'the way' 20% of the Americans are suffering due to the Great Recession. Does it mean that the happily employed American cheerfully fulfilling his or her obligations from picking up coffee to ending nights with parties and later, after full eight to nine hour sleep, waking up without a single thought about the rest of the unemployed going sleepless? Could this also be said that a Pakistani, since not experiencing the air strikes first hand, do not feel the anugish of the fellow Pakistanis? A Pakistani is more in tune with the fellow Pakistani just like an American more in touch with the suffering of the fellow Americans. Chickens always do come home to roost. It is crystal clear for both Pakistan and America. Certainly it was even fitting in the case of Malcolm X's case.
rubab Oct 09, 2011 01:40pm can not compare the sufferings of Pakistani's and Americans....Every Pakistani is suffering, some with DRONE attackes, some with BOMB BLASTS, some with UNEMPLOYMENT, some with LOAD-SHEDDING, and all with INSECURITY. all these blessings are because of this war on TERROR ( sounds funny)....just 3000 ( for us its just because we have lost much more) people killed in 9/11 and we are having a 9/11 daily in Pakistan since 2001.if all of the people of US suffer from that one 9/11 how can you even imagine that we Pakistanis are deaf and dumb to a 9/11 on daily basis (256 bomb blasts in Pakistan since the first 9/11 in US)...EVEN Pakistanis living outside country are also suffering , they feel pain and they handle the arguments from people around and they have their families or relatives here in million killed in Iraq. millions in Afghanistan, thousands in Pakistan and i wonder how much blood AMERICANS need more for a REVENGE of 9/11.....what US is doing for Pakistan is supporting the most corrupt govt to fulfill its NATIONAL INTERESTS the author should be careful in writing this....Every Pakistani is suffering in one way or another , more or less, and Americans can not even imagine a part of this....for one 9/11 they made world suffer for 10 years and destroyed three countries, for 256 ( two months old figure) 9/11 what Pakistan and Pakistani's should do???
Nasah Oct 09, 2011 06:37pm
Both are out of touch with their people -- more so in Pakistan than in US. The so called people's power doesnot exist in Pakistan - is minimal in USA.
nilofar saleem Oct 10, 2011 12:58am
Agree with you,hundred percent !! Even the POOR in America can't dream of the suffering Waziries are going through due to" War on Terror".