Political toxicity: Pak, US on the same page

It was no accident that the shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords took place only five days after the assassination in Pakistan of Punjab governor Salman Taseer. In both countries, in their own ways, the political scene is dominated by violent rhetoric, threat and occasional violence. Furthermore, both governments are unable to take strong political action against instigators or contain the spread of weaponry. 

The attempt on Giffords life was, in the view of many commentators, due to her Democratic party’s alleged ‘socialist’ policies on a variety of issues -- health care, bank bail-outs, the environment, and immigration.

Immigration, in particular, has been a hot topic in Giffords’ Arizona constituency as it is located on the porous border with Mexico. While the US political right is avowedly secular, it is strongly influenced by Christian evangelicals who have become a serious force on the US scene, particularly in southern and central states. 

Legal controversies

Taseer was killed because he called for the redrafting of Pakistan's vague blasphemy laws which have been misused by radical Muslim clerics and conservatives to persecute members of minorities. Controversy over these laws has sharpened while violent attacks against Shias, Ahmadis, and Sufis have increased.   

US commentators argue that the vitriolic partisan atmosphere in the country either directly or indirectly motivated Giffords’ attacker.  On the broader level, they say she was a victim of the Tea Party-right wing Republican campaign to ‘get’ President Barack Obama, whatever the cost.

This was typified by an add put out by backers of Sarah Palin, the 2008 failed Republican vice presidential candidate. This ad featured a US map marked with disks representing 20 vulnerable Democratic congressional seats. The disks, however, were made out to represent  the cross-hairs of a gunsight. 

The text on the map read, “We’ve diagnosed the problem...Help us prescribe the solution.”  The map was effective: many of the 20 seats fell to Republicans and weakened Obama by depriving him of a Democratic majority in the lower house of Congress.

Such ads appeared against a drum-beat of constant incitement by virulently partisan television and radio stations and newspapers.

Rightist commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck provoke in order to boost the number of viewers. 

The general Pakistani political climate is equally toxic. Taseer’s death shocked fellow liberals but was celebrated by those Pakistanis who have lost all sense of political balance, personified by the young lawyers who showered the alleged perpetrator with rose petals during his court appearance. 

In both the US and Pakistan, liberals and moderates face double jeopardy. In the US the powerful gun lobby makes it impossible to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of potentially dangerous individuals like Jared Loughner, who allegedly shot Giffords and 20 others, killing six. Ironically, Giffords, who lived in a state where gun ownership is common and laws lax, opposed restrictions on gun possession.

It is unclear how the alleged shooter managed to purchase a semi-automatic handgun last November. Loughner was suspended last September from a community colleague as he was disruptive in class and in the library. Fellow students interviewed in the press said he appeared unstable and they felt threatened by his presence.

He was told he could return only if he had “a mental health clearance indicating, in the opinion of a mental health professional, his presence at the college does not present a danger to himself or others.” The military refused to induct him in 2008 because he was found to be a drug user. Nevertheless, he passed the background check for purchasing two weapons, a shotgun and a handgun, and had the right to carry and use them in specific circumstances.

But not to shoot a Congresswoman or to murder innocent bystanders. US state authorities do not keep up-to-date lists of mentally ill people for submission to a national data base meant to be consulted by gun merchants before finalising a sale.           

In Pakistan illegal weapons and explosives are widely available due to the flow of arms across the frontier from Afghanistan and from areas where Taliban insurgents are strong. In Taseer’s case, however, the assassin was a legally armed body guard who proudly took responsibility for the killing.

It is ironic that the smuggling of weapons into Pakistan began during the rule of General Zia ul-Haq who also launched the campaign to ‘Islamisise’ the country and the society, thereby empowering radical elements who preach and practice intolerance.

During her recent tour of the Gulf, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton admitted that incitement is a danger to the US as well as other countries and called for governments to act against it. But she said nothing about the prevalence of guns.

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