I was at an uncle’s house in Peshawar a couple of months ago when the windows began to rattle. One of my youngest cousins walked towards them, peering out nervously. “It’s an earthquake,” she said almost hopefully. I looked at her father who shook his head slowly, but only when his daughter had turned back to the window. It was as if he wanted her to believe that the quivering earth was the result of a mere natural disaster. And then the windows began to clatter again. The 14-year-old slunk onto the couch beside her father. Her sisters and mother filed in around the TV, scarves draped over their heads, lips moving in prayer. It didn’t take long for live coverage to begin. The site of the attack was the city airport, just a couple miles from where we were. Even more disconcerting, the rockets began to fire where, just a few minutes prior, my aunt had driven on her way home. Once we’d been watching long enough that the news reports had become repetitive—the same bloodied shirts and broken asphalt dominating the screen—my uncle began to call all of our relatives. He started with those closest to where the rockets fell and worked his way out. For the first time, I did the same, calling people on my father’s side of the family.
I’ve followed news of such attacks for years, and have done so even more closely now that I'm working as a reporter in Pakistan—a place where this past Saturday, Election Day, nearly 30 people were killed in violence as the country took to the polls. Despite the constant barrage of chilling headlines, I never bothered to reach out to my relatives to check up on them. But then again, before the attack on the airport, I never truly understood what it's like to feel so unsafe standing in the middle of your living room. The same feeling of terror struck me again just a couple of weeks ago when I discovered, via Twitter, an unfolding scene of chaos at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
I had been settling into bed, but news of the bombing kept me up nearly until morning. I absorbed as many live streams as I could and checked in with friends who I knew would be running, watching, or reporting on the race. Armed with a press pass and recording kit, I had covered the finish line last year, standing for hours on end at the very spot where the first bomb erupted to file live newscasts for the NPR local news affiliate, WBUR. Although I was a full year removed from the scene, the thought of bombs going off in the center of Boston shook me from half a world away.
I couldn't help but cringe to watch as initial reports of the brothers Tsaranaev were filled with unfounded allegations of ties to jihadist outlets. Information that has come forth since suggests that the suspected culprits set up the makeshift explosive devices without the support of a sophisticated terrorist network. They were driven to their heinous crime it seems, by a sense of alienation.
In America, many instances of mass violence are perpetrated because of the singular motivations of an individual: a man walks into a movie theater or a school and shoots it up, often without any signs of his vicious designs. The crimes are viscerally personal, and this is what’s so frightening. One never knows if the person at the check-out counter or at the town library is going to break down and go on a killing spree—and worse, we may never be able to understand what brought a quiet neighbor or all-star athlete to take such an bewildering turn.
Violence in Pakistan is different. It is a country largely governed by old-world communal ties, even the responsibility for mass carnage tends to be shared by a group of people. Soon after a shooting spree ravages a busy Karachi street or a car bomb erupts in Quetta, a militant group will often phone the media to lay claim to the attack. There are, of course, cases of purely individualized violence and no doubt, the mothers of some suicide bombers must be totally taken aback by the actions of their sons. By and large, the perpetrators of large-scale attacks committed to them through a network of others. Even a lone gunman is backed up by a crime syndicate or terrorist group which is itself often governed by an even broader set of social ties: a longstanding ethnic divide or a centuries-old sectarian rift that may well be a proxy war between regional actors.
In Pakistan, intransigent social codes rule all—including patterns of violence. In a place where marriages are a calculated merger between not just two people but two extended families, even bloodshed seems to adhere to the collectivist pattern of the broader social fabric. In America, on the other hand, an unbridled individualism reigns supreme. It can be seen in everything from the way relationships form to where one sets down roots to the plotting of mass murders. Perhaps one reason why atrocities like those in Boston and Aurora cause such consternation is because they symbolize a failure of the American way of life. In a place where it really is every man for himself, there will invariably be the disaffected few who, left to their own devices, turn their internal strife outwards by inflicting physical pain on unsuspecting, innocent victims.
In contrast, there is a sort of industry that breeds communal mistrust in Pakistan. It was the rallying force behind the very creation of the country. Pakistan was meant to be a refuge for Muslims who refused to suffer as a lowly minority in India once the British left the region. Some have argued that the country’s national curriculum imbues school children with a learned intolerance that lays the foundation for hate crimes and terrorism. “Otherness” has further been codified into law. The country’s constitution prevents Ahmedis, members of a sect that reveres a man who lived after the Prophet Mohammad, from “posing as Muslims” under punishment of death. In a place where such biting biases have been clearly demarcated across social lines, violence seems an obvious outcome that many have been forced to endure as a part of their lives.
A friend of mine recently told me about a nice Italian restaurant in town—one with good crepes topped with fresh fruit and real cream. “But and the really great thing about it,” she said, “is that the place was bombed a couple years back and so it’s nice and quiet and you never have to wait to get a table.” A glib sense of mortality like this is commonplace across Pakistan. Death is an all too constant companion especially in cities like Karachi and Quetta where news teams run from one targeted killing or bomb blast to another. Most of my family lives in Peshawar. The closest major city to the semi-autonomous tribal areas, Peshawar has become the battleground for extremists who have not only blown up markets for selling “immoral” products like American films and Viagra but, paradoxically, mosques as well. Over the course of the last few years, my mother’s five brothers, most of whom have lived in Peshawar all of their lives, now make an effort to each say Friday prayers in different mosques, just in case. In case of what, no one really talks about, but my family and many others in this part of the world are ruled by a sort of perverse pragmatism; they build their routines and rituals around a constant threat of physical danger.
What I do hear from most of my adult relatives is an acquiescence of their own eventual, possibly violent, demise. The refrain is always the same: “We survived this one, but our lives are in God’s hands.”
The night after the attack on the Peshawar airport, I sat up late talking with my aunt and uncle. They told me about how they would check on their daughter at night and find her sleeping with the lights left aglow and her glasses on. They figured she’d fallen asleep while reading and gingerly removed them, only to find them back on her face when they went to wake her up in the morning. They finally asked her about this, and she said, “I have to keep my glasses on. If there’s a bombing and everything comes to the ground, how will I find them?”
Although violence and the emotional toll it takes can never be wholly accepted, it's come to be expected in places like Peshawar. Insecurity is a shared experience for many in cities across the country; a part of the collective understanding of what it means to be Pakistani. Indeed, resilience has become sort of a national trait. Even as appalling instances of violence take place in America, they are still just that: instances of violence, each one isolated from the next, cast in individual molds. The Boston Marathon bombing is not the Aurora rampage or the Sandy Hook shooting. Indeed, American tragedies are held to American standards of individualism, distinct and rarefied. That's precisely what gives their shockwaves such profound resonance, even in places where death and destruction have become a constant lull, ever-ready to erupt into mayhem.