PHOENIX – On Sunday here I was the main speaker at the annual Daal Saag Luncheon of the local Pakistan Information and Cultural Organization (PICO). I had just sat down after giving my speech, when the Pakistani man sitting to my right informed me that an attack was taking place on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. “It’s happening right now,” he emphasized.
The news, available via the smartphone of anyone and everyone in the room, brought home the surreal immediacy of the events unfolding on the other side of the planet, even as we tried to say good things about Pakistan for the sake of invited guests such as Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This is the meaning of terrorism, especially in the hyper-connected 21st century: there’s nowhere we can go to get away from it. At the same time, it was also true that those of us in the ballroom of the Phoenix Airport Marriott were a lot farther from the immediate danger than were the travelers and staff at Pakistan’s busiest airport.
In my writing and public speaking I try to stress to Americans the most important thing I discovered in getting to know Pakistan and Pakistanis: our common humanity. That sounds, and is, very earnest and feel-good, but its dark underbelly is the potential and reality of human evil. I’m often asked whether, in my nearly two decades of visiting and living in Pakistan, I’ve ever felt myself to be in physical danger. The answer is yes, at least twice: in a town in the North-West Frontier Province in 1999, and at an arts festival in Karachi disrupted by a political party’s goons in 2009. Age and experience have made me more sober about the real possibility of danger, and I also keep in mind something my friend and colleague Mary Kay Magistad told me years ago in Cambodia: that you can’t report the story if you’re dead.
But the Karachi airport attack is sobering anew. I’ve been telling anyone who asks that I plan to focus my next trip to Pakistan on Karachi, because that huge but oddly neglected city is so clearly at the epicenter of all that’s happening in and to Pakistan today. The airport attack not only renders my rather glibly expressed intention a statement of the grimly obvious, but also forces me to wonder not only whether I would actually travel to Pakistan again, but even whether I could. Will the airport be safe? Will it even be open?
The paradox of our times is that we’re at once more immediately and intimately connected than ever before, and more isolated and paranoid. My pitch to the Phoenix audience was that we can’t count on the authorities or established institutions to do for us what needs to be done, which includes first and foremost reminding ourselves and each other of our shared humanity. For my part, I’m continuing to take the story and message of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan to readers and audiences around America. It’s what I’m in a position to do.
I really don’t claim to know what policies either the Pakistani or the U.S. government should pursue, in response to this attack or anything else. What I do claim is that the most important thing for Americans to know about the Karachi attack is not any geopolitical upshot, but the fact that innocent Pakistanis died.