When violence and mayhem involves People Who Look Like Us (“us” in this case generally translating to: ethnically European/white, not-poor, citizens of a Western-style democracy) — we experience society-wide woe. When it involves People Who Don’t Look Like Us? Often, not so much.
We see this in the semi-annual “OMG heroin has reached the suburbs” stories, we see it in the stories of missing mothers or schoolyard shootings that take place somewhere outside our inner cities or meth-riddled mountains — and I think we saw it again in the wake of the terrorist attack in Norway.
I am not, in any way, suggesting a sliding scale of pain. Pain is pain, loss is loss — if your child, partner, friend, parent, loved one was killed, in Oslo, on her way home from work, or in some random Columbine-like horror, your grief is no less because your skin is pale or your bank account full.
But as someone who follows the news out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, as someone who once-upon-a-time covered terrorism’s aftermath as a reporter, as someone who has seen up close and personal the damage that bombs can do, I couldn’t help but feel the vast difference between America’s response to the terrorism in Norway, and our response that with which the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan live on a nearly daily basis.
Part of this is, of course, because in Norway, the line between good and evil was clear, shining and bright. One terrorist, 77 innocents. We know, in a heartbeat, how to direct our horror and revulsion, and to whom to offer our prayers and support.
This is not the case in the Af-Pak region. First of all, the West isn’t even sure of its own role anymore, if it ever was. Are we good guys or bad guys? When children are killed as our soldiers aim for the Taliban — who are we? Should we even be there? Are we imperialists, or did we fail to go after the Taliban hard enough in the first place?
But beyond the complexities of the war and a porous border — Western soldiers are not the ones purposely blowing people up in the middle of busy cities. Surely the people doing that are the bad guys, right? But what if their fight is just? And wait — who gets to decide what “just” means? Throw in the endlessly complex cultural and political realities of the two societies, the fact that Westerners tend to expect Muslims to be violent (though Muslims might disagree) — we throw up our hands. Another 27 dead. Another 22. An 8 year old boy. Those people.
One need only scroll through the Twitter feed of Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel to see that a good deal more than 77 Afghans and Pakistanis were killed in the month of July alone, not on a battlefield, but while trying to live their lives. Hell, nearly 100 were killed in the Pakistani city of Karachi in the first week of July.
Some of these were combatants. Some were violent misogynists. Some were trying to go to the market. Some were children. Some of the “innocents” probably deserved to die, and some of the fighters had probably been involved in trying to bring peace. The lines are neither clear, nor shining, nor bright.
I don’t have any grand conclusion to draw or act of advocacy to recommend. I know that no human being can carry all the world’s pain without buckling under the weight, and if a geek like me can’t always keep all the warring parties straight in Af-Pak, I surely don’t expect anyone else to manage it.
I just think that as we mourn the losses in Oslo, as we send our prayers and our white light and our best wishes to our Norwegian sisters and brothers, it matters that we also remember those for whom the Norway attacks look horrifyingly familiar. We need to find a way to manage to bear witness to the humanity of those living and dying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, too. As the holy month of Ramadan begins, perhaps we owe the living and the dead at least that much.
If you want to learn more about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the violence that has marked the history of both, here are two great books to get you started: Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, and Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (both of which I reviewed for the Dallas Morning News).