Troubled Young Men

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IMG_3013Following is the text of the speech Ethan Casey delivered at the annual Daal Saag Luncheon of the Pakistan Information and Cultural Organization in Phoenix, Arizona on June 8, 2014.

I want to tell you about my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, why I wrote it ten years ago, and why I’ve just republished it in an updated edition. I feel able to take the liberty of talking to you today about my own book, because I’m not here to try to sell it to you. PICO has already bought a hundred copies from me, and I do hope that each of you will buy several copies from PICO today, to support them in the support they’re already showing for my book’s purpose.

What is my book’s purpose? No one has expressed it better than Alex Spillius, a reporter for the conservative British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in his review of Alive and Well in Pakistan when it was first published, in 2004: “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.” My book is first-person narrative nonfiction, a travel book, covering multiple journeys over the first decade of my deepening personal involvement with Pakistan, between 1994 and 2004. It’s also journalism, in the sense that it reports on public events and issues as they unfold, but mostly in the background. Usually public events are in the foreground, but in the foreground of the story I’m telling are the interesting and usually likeable ordinary Pakistanis that I came to know and, in many cases, consider friends. I’ve come to feel strongly that this kind of writing is of more enduring value than straight reporting of what is generally considered news. News trades too often in unhelpful, reductive, and even damaging and insulting caricatures and clichés, and it also looks at people and events in our world from the wrong angle.

Since Alive and Well in Pakistan was first published ten years ago, I’ve written and published similar books about Haiti and about the United States. I’ve also made two more long visits to Pakistan, in 2009 and 2011. My 2011 trip was for the specific purpose of visiting areas affected by the severe flooding of the 2010 monsoon season, including the Swat valley and rural central and southern Punjab province, so that I could return and share stories of human suffering in Pakistan with the American public. I’ve now just published an updated and expanded 10th-anniversary edition of Alive and Well in Pakistan. It’s this new edition that PICO has purchased and will be giving to the non-Pakistani guests at today’s lunch. The forty pages of new material include several articles that I wrote over the past few years on topics such as drone attacks, the role and behavior of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the 2010 floods. It also includes two speeches, including one I’m very proud to have delivered to cadets at the United States Air Force Academy, and a previously unpublished essay about how the U.S. foreign policy establishment misunderstands Pakistan.

In all of this, and in the original book itself, I’m not out to prove any political point or support any American or Pakistani faction. My point is that we’re all in it together; my real journey is a search for common humanity. I hope that the earnest and non-partisan purpose of my work is underscored by the two very generous endorsements that I had the honor to print on the back cover of the new edition, from two American elected officials who enjoy warm personal relationships with Pakistan and Pakistanis: Congressman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who is a Democrat, and Mayor Roger Claar of Bolingbrook, Illinois, who is a Republican.

I would, and always will, return to Pakistan any time. I like and enjoy Pakistan, have many Pakistani friends, and always feel welcome there. But I feel that my real work, these days and until further notice, is here in America. I can be most useful here, in my own country, taking to the American public the message that’s implicit and, I hope, also explicit in Alive and Well in Pakistan, both the title and the book itself: that, in today’s troubled and unstable world, we’re all in it together. That, as Haitians say, tout moun se moun – all people are people. Or as Thomas Jefferson put it in the American Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal. Or, as God tells us in the Holy Quran: “I made you nations and tribes, that you might know one another.”

It’s interesting to reflect that I just quoted very similar sentiments, expressed in the vocabularies of three very different traditions. This surely underscores the very deep and beautiful truth of the Quranic version: “I made you nations and tribes, that you might know one another.” God doesn’t say that he made us nations and tribes that we might consider ourselves superior to one another, or that we might kill or disregard one another. He says that he made us nations and tribes – different from one another – that we might know one another. I think it behooves all of us to put that in our pipe and smoke it, as my grandmother would say.

I think that one of the reasons God made us nations and tribes, that we might know one another, is so that we might discover, in our diversity, our common humanity. Pakistan and America, for example, are very different, but have many things in common. Both are countries whose political geography depends largely on historical contingencies and accidents. And both were founded in self-conscious devotion to abstract ideals. But other things that America and Pakistan share in common are more specific and concrete. For example, both have severely dysfunctional national systems of education. My mother, who is in very active retirement after more than forty years as a public-school teacher, administrator, and principal, has a lot to say about that. And both suffer from epidemics of gun violence and international as well as domestic terrorism.

An obvious point of comparison is between the horrible attacks, within days of each other in January 2011, on the liberal publisher and Punjab province governor Salmaan Taseer outside a coffee shop in Islamabad, and on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson. Both were political figures, and we should not avert our eyes from the ugly fact that, in both cases, the gunmen had armchair sympathizers who applauded or at least excused the killing. But, having said that, I want to emphasize a different and more important truth. The fact that a Muslim bigot named Mumtaz Qadri killed Salmaan Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s appalling blasphemy law does not reflect badly on all Muslims, only on those Muslim bigots who allow their bigotry to override their humanity. And the fact that Gabrielle Giffords is a Democrat does not mean that her shooting by Jared Loughner reflects poorly on Republicans or on Americans with conservative views, only on Loughner himself and on anyone who would excuse or ignore what he did.

I dwell on this particular unsettling subject because I believe that the parallels between the proliferation of such attacks in Pakistan and in America are greater and more revealing than the differences. And I share and endorse a view that many Muslims express to me, and to anyone else who will hear them: that it’s both unfair and unhelpful that, whenever such an attack is perpetrated by a Muslim, it is considered “Muslim terrorism,” whereas if a white American is the culprit it’s too easily explained away as the action of a troubled young man or a lone nut.

The truth is that any young man, of any persuasion or background, who would do such a thing is a troubled young man, regardless of his motivation. The other reason I choose to speak at length about this is that, this week in particular, it hits very close to home for me. I certainly have no cause to pick on Arizona, because three days ago, in famously placid and liberal Seattle, yet another troubled young man opened fire on yet another college campus. I live in Seattle, and one thing my group of friends enjoys doing is taking long urban hikes through our beautiful city’s many pleasant and interesting neighborhoods. It happens that, just last Saturday, we hiked across the campus of Seattle Pacific University. The shooting, which made headlines nationally but surely will fade quickly into our shared backdrop of perpetual distraction (if it hasn’t already), took place on Thursday. My friends and I almost literally dodged a bullet. In addition to which, a few months ago outside the Fred Meyer supermarket in my own generally safe neighborhood – the Fred Meyer where I shop – a middle-aged man a lot like me was murdered by a young man with a gun, for his cell phone.

I’m actually not advocating gun control, or any other public policy. As a writer, I make a policy of not advocating policies. I don’t claim to have any solutions or answers. But I’m very willing to do a couple of things that have to be done first in any case: ask questions, and say candidly that we have a problem.

And this is where this talk circles back to Pakistan, because if America has a problem, so does Pakistan. And if Pakistan is chaotic and rudderless and fraying at the edges, intimidated by small factions of radicals and dominated by a privileged military caste, so is America all of those things. On Thursday my wife asked me, in real distress and exasperation, what could be done to address the epidemic of random shootings in America. As if I might have an answer. My wife is an intelligent and sophisticated person, but she’s also just fundamentally a nice person, who wonders why people can’t all just be nice to each other. I wonder the same thing. So did the late Rodney King, who prophetically asked why we can’t all just get along. My wife asked me what she asked me, not because she thinks I have any particular expertise or answer, but the way any of us might ask his or her spouse: “What can we, well-meaning members of society, do about this?” But, in my reply, I came up short. What I found myself saying was: “It’s just like in Pakistan. Once the guns are out there in people’s hands, it almost doesn’t matter what the law or policy is. Things like this are going to happen.”

One of my working principles as a writer is that understanding should take priority over both judgment and action. And there is in fact help for us in understanding the violence of our world today, in both America and Pakistan. The great British novelist J.G. Ballard spoke, in an interview in 2003, of “a kind of desperation where meaningless acts by virtue of their lack of meaning have a sort of desperate purpose,” and of “a paralyzing conformity and boredom that can only be relieved by a violent act, by taking your Kalashnikov into the nearest supermarket and letting rip. That’s not far fetched,” he said. And in 2004 Ballard spoke of “extreme possibilities that may be forced into reality by the suffocating pressures of the conformist world we inhabit,” and commented: “These meaningless crimes are much more difficult to explain than the 9/11 attacks, and say far more about the troubled state of the Western psyche.”

And the great Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid included in his recent book Pakistan on the Brink the following summary of the challenges facing Pakistan today:

One-third of Pakistanis today lack drinking water, another 77 million have unreliable food sources, and half the school-age children do not go to school. The literacy rate is 57 percent, the lowest in South Asia and not much better than the 52 percent that prevailed at the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Half the population are not even looking for jobs, since they know they won’t be able to find them. The country needs at least a 9 percent annual growth rate to employ its under-twenties, who make up 60 percent of the population. The 37 percent of Pakistanis who are under the age of fifteen give Pakistan one of the world’s largest youth bulges.

Nowhere in that passage does Ahmed Rashid mention either Islam or terrorism, and I think that’s the point. In any society it is crucial to provide young men – and I do mean young men in particular – with real, meaningful opportunities to do dignified work that provides for their families and contributes usefully to society as a whole. If we don’t do that, some of them will shoot people and blow things up.

Way back in 1999, the prominent Pakistani media figure Najam Sethi said to me in his office in Lahore, with a wry grin: “We have to win. The good guys have to win – right, Ethan?” Najam was one of the very first people I met on my very first visit to Pakistan in 1995, and he has been kind and generous to me on many occasions ever since. He was the original Pakistani publisher of my book. Whether the good guys will win is an open question, as it always is, but I quote Najam Sethi here because what I like the most about him, and about many other Pakistanis of various backgrounds and persuasions, is their resourcefulness. Generally speaking, Pakistanis don’t sit around waiting for the authorities or the established institutions to do things that need to be done. Pakistanis know that they can’t afford to wait around, because Pakistan is a society in such perpetual flux: the authorities keep changing, and the institutions aren’t very well established, even after 67 years. Pakistanis know the importance of taking the initiative and doing things yourself.

One area in which it’s especially important for us ordinary people to take a DIY attitude is in knowing and communicating with one another – that is to say, in creating and disseminating media. The print and electronic media in Pakistan have been lively and relatively free, but very recently there have been ominous crackdowns on Geo TV and on dissenting Facebook pages. In America, almost all traditional media institutions are fighting for their lives on the business side, and dull and demoralized on the journalistic side. In neither country can we count on the authorities or the established institutions to give us a true and helpful story that reminds us of our common humanity. That’s why we have to do it ourselves.

What I’ve done is to update and reprint my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, and what PICO has done is to sponsor 100 copies of it to be given to American elected officials, including those in this room, and to students. What you can do is to purchase copies from PICO today, as many as you want, to give to your non-Pakistani friends, neighbors, and co-workers. There are other things we also can and should be doing, but this is something we can do together that’s simple and, I think, effective. Let’s remind ourselves and each other of our common humanity.

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