As I’ve been following the news the past couple weeks, I’ve become increasing despondent… and increasingly aware that we’re all looking pretty ugly lately.
Take a few cases I’ve been focusing on in Pakistan — the Raymond Davis case, which reads like a spy thriller (because it sort of actually is), and the assassinations of both Salman Taseer (January 4) and Shahbaz Bhatti (today).
If you don’t know, Raymond Davis is an American who shot two Pakistanis dead through the windshield of his car in the city of Lahore on January 27. He claimed it to be an act of self-defense, and the two men were indeed carrying weapons and stolen cell phones. The case is complicated, however, by a number of intriguing factors — Davis shot the two men in the back (and was carrying a loaded Glock, at that); had several different identification cards, a pocket telescope, a headband and attachable flashlight, a quantity of bullets, knives, wires, “make-up,” and camera loaded with pictures of madrassas; and has been claimed by the US government to belong to first one consulate, then another. The US is pressing that Davis be released as he has diplomatic immunity. Pakistan has responded by saying he has no such thing. Given all of the factors involved (Pakistan’s horrifically biased press, the US gov’t changing its story several times), whether or not he actually does remains deeply unclear.
The ugliness here springs from one gnawing detail, for me. After Davis shot the two men, he got out of his car and started taking pictures on his phone (?). He also called a nearby American group he knew for protection, and the vehicle was in such a rush to get to him that it drove the wrong way down a one-way street, and ran over and killed a Pakistani motorcyclist. That an American shot dead two apparent robbers and then called his American buddies for his own protection, and that this vehicle ran over a bystander in its haste to get to him, seems deeply representative of ugly Americanism.
Then there are the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti, two members of the Pakistan People’s Party who supported reform (or scrapping) of the Blasphemy law, a law that has been abused consistently as a means of putting away minorities, and is a barbarous attack on free speech on its own. Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, acted on his own (incited by a cleric’s vitriolic speech). What makes this situation all the more ugly is that the heavily-attended protests were not those mourning the death of Taseer; they were protests against the jailing of Qadri. People in the media let about ten minutes go by before transforming into apologists for Qadri. Let the fear conquer all. “This is a Muslim country.” The ugly image here is that of a big group of college kids crowding outside the jail on Valentine’s Day with heart-shaped cards for Qadri… “Islam is not opposed to love,” one of the protesters explained to a reporter. Oh, the ugly.
Then there’s the public’s infatuation with people who appear to be legitimately mentally unstable — Col. Qaddafi, of course, and now we’re newly taken with Charlie Sheen. While I’m not a psychiatrist, I think both could easily be diagnosed with at least Narcissistic Personality Disorder. And while they’ve both been pretty damn ugly in their self-adulation and desire for attention, what worries me slightly more is our reaction to them. Sheen’s self-destruction is entertaining, so every time he seeks out a camera we’re there immediately to ask and prod and provoke and giggle. “He’s so crazy!” everyone says. But, yeah — he actually is crazy. That should elicit feelings of concern; it’s a scary thing to be mentally unstable. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really care about Charlie Sheen. But someone should. Hell, if it needs to be non-stop entertainment, even Dr. Phil or Dr. Drew or whoever could step in. Or, you know, his family. But everyone gathering ’round to point and laugh is just… well, it seems a little ugly.
And then there’s Qaddafi, who rambles on about drugs in the Nescafe and equates people with “greasy cats and rats.” Q. is a shameless machine of cruelty and destruction. Thousands of people in Libya have died, and thousands are terrified. So my issue here is twofold — 1) that the media has given so little attention to Qaddafi’s apparent mental instability. Considering him in this way — as someone who is just Not Going to Act Rationally — would help to render the symbolic actions (i.e. kicking Libya from the UN Human Rights Commission) a little more ridiculous. Dealing with an insane despot is very different from dealing with a sane one, and I wish we might have acknowledged this early on — at least by the time he gave a speech from the back seat of a car, holding an umbrella. 2) That lots of people have insisted on portraying Q. in the light of the comedian. I’m a little split here, actually, because I definitely think that mocking someone is a great way to render them powerless. But that should have come before… at this point, he’s clearly using whatever power he’s got at his disposal, and consistently treating him like a benign comic just takes attention away from that fact.
These are, of course, only a few examples — and the uglier among them. But this is where my head’s been lately. Sometimes it’s more obvious. Remember in middle school, those insecure kids who would make fun of the handicapped and Special Ed students? That’s the lowest end, of course, the truly shameless kind of stuff that, when you even hear it, makes you feel like taking a shower. But so much of it is subtle, and so much of it we violate every so often in insidious ways. No one is perfect, of course, and I’m certainly no bright, shining star of intelligent or rightful action. But in particular it’s the lack of reflection, the lack of grace, that irks me. Lately, looking around, it’s so hard not to fixate.
How we react to catastrophic or ridiculous or just sad events? It’s worth considering.