Easter Sunday brings with it, for Christians, the victory of resurrection over death. The same morning witnessed a horrific terrorist attack in the magnificent Pakistani city of Lahore. The attack took the lives of some 72 unarmed, defenseless civilians, including 29 children who were playing in the lovely park of Gulshan-e Iqbal.
There are other sites that one can turn to for political analysis, a discussion of the Jamaat ul-Ahrar branch of the Taliban that has claimed responsibility, and the inner dynamics of Pakistani society. But, I want to use these few words to move in a different direction: to focus on the spiritual dimension of receiving and processing such horrific news.
We need and deserve time to mourn. There is something profoundly unhealthy about the rush to form hashtag campaigns, blasting selective outrage, and wondering whether Facebook will recognize this human suffering before we have actually mourned.
We need time to mourn. We need time to grieve. All of those actions are necessary, but mourning has to happen. Un-mourned grief always resurfaces as something unhealthy later on.
Terrorists thrive on terror. That’s what makes them terror-ists. They use the specter of violence to inflict fear and terror, amplified through media, to make their political points.
How easy it is to fall into the trap of these fear-mongers. How tempting. We cannot avert our gaze, nor should we. But as I explore the inner chambers of my own heart, and wonder at the broken and hurting world that we have created, a few insights surface about how not to be a part of amplifying the vile and the repulsive. How do we morally respond to such a vile attack?
Let us start with the obvious. Those who would wage war on unarmed innocents, especially children, have no decency, no morality, no religion, and no grasp of beauty or tenderness. To target a park frequented by families and children shows the complete and total moral bankruptcy of such groups. They can destroy and tear down, but they cannot build anything.
Perhaps the most articulate symbol of hope for Pakistan, the 18-year-old Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, expressed the feeling of so many people in Pakistan and around the world:
“I am devastated by the senseless killing of innocent people in Lahore. My heart goes out to the victims and their families and friends. I condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms. We stand together with the families of the victims. Pakistan and the world must unite. Every life is precious and must be respected and protected.”
We cannot bomb our way out of violence. Yes, it pains my own heart, one committed to nonviolence, to admit that some measure of force linked to solid human rights principles might be necessary to protect a defenseless population. But unlike what Ted Cruz recently said, we cannot make “sand glow” to achieve peace.
We cannot posture our way out of terrorism. When the response of presidential candidates is to attempt to score political points and claim (as Donald Trump did) that “I alone can solve” terrorism… well, we have much maturing to do.
We the people have to demand better, and we deserve better. An old saying states that people get the leader they deserve, not the leader they want. We have to demand better to get better leadership.
As we rightfully condemn the vile moral bankruptcy of these terrorist organizations, let us also be truthful about our own complicity. It was the United States that supported the Afghan Mujahedeen to fight the Soviet invasion of Iraq. Our own Ronald Reagan invited them to the White House and armed them with billions of dollars. As others have traced it before, it was the Mujahedeen that eventually morphed into the Taliban, and the Taliban splintered into the group that inflicted the terrorist attack on Lahore.
We are responsible for so much of the militarizing of the most volatile region in the world. It is we the United States who have for decades supported the autocratic and dictatorial regimes that these groups rebel against. We the United States have our own history of bombing wedding parties and children in several Muslim countries. Let us by all means condemn the vile terrorism such as the group in Lahore, but let us also be truthful about the blood on our own hands.
Let us not give in to compassion fatigue. So many of us see the series of attacks in Ankara, San Bernardino, Paris, West Bank, Istanbul, Brussels, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, and now Lahore. No, it is not simply a matter of us being more aware of these attacks. Somehow the pace of this madness is picking up. A recent map documented how frequently these attacks are happening now.
While it is understandable to want to shut out the world, stick our heads in the sand, or dream of retiring to a safe corner of the world, compassion fatigue is a privilege. It is those of us who have the luxury of turning off the TV or not checking out the news who can do this, not those whose nights are lit up by explosions from the ground and drones from the unmerciful heavens.
Compassion fatigue does nothing to bring back the dead, or to comfort those whose hearts are aching. Somehow we have to muster the courage to stand with aching yet loving hearts, eyes wide open, informed minds, and hands reaching out to comfort the discomforted, uplift the suffering, and redeem our humanity.
It may seem like a strange act to look to a former icon of children’s programming for wisdom and inspiration at times like this, but some teachings stand the test of time. I am reminded of Mr. Rogers, who recalls having seen something scary on the news, and turning to his mother for comfort.
Her response was as relevant then as it is urgently needed now:
Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.
There are those who see a terrorist attack, and come to associate a vile repulsive terrorist group like Jamaat ul-Ahrar with the essence of Islam, or even as being representative of Pakistani society. I do not deny that these groups are a part of Pakistani society anymore than I would deny that white-nationalist, KKK-style groups have been and are a part of American society. What I would question and push back against is the idea that they represent the best of Pakistani society.
This is not to idealize Pakistan, a country whose origin goes back to the painful period of post-colonial British partition. Pakistan has had a terrible human rights record in terms of treatment of Ahmadis, Shi‘i Muslims, and other religious minorities. There is little reason to deny the corrosive impact of the radical theological seminaries that, at best, serve as welfare institutions and, at worst, propagate Wahhabi-style puritanical interpretations of Islam.
However, there is also much to admire about Pakistan, even its imperfectly realized ideals. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, said in his first presidential address back in 1947:
“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
Many of the Western pundits who are quick to associate Islam with violence seized on the fact that the attack seems to have targeted Christians, and associated that with a Pakistani (or Muslim) intolerance for religious difference. But the dead tell a different story. The majority of the 72 dead had in fact been Muslim, Muslims who had come out to celebrate Easter, spring, and the rejuvenation of life.
Rather than recalling the xenophobia of the few suicide bombers, I want to shine a light on the pluralism, humanity, and life-adoration of the hundreds and thousands who had come out to celebrate. This is the Pakistan that many of us know and love, a quality we have seen again and again across the world. Life wins.
A handful of suicide bombers seem to have rushed to bring death and mayhem. But thousands and thousands of Pakistanis responded to this siren of death with something radically different. They lined up to give blood, food, and supplies. Even companies got into the healing. The Careem, an Uber-like service in Pakistan, put aside profits and offered to transport people who wanted to give blood to hospitals for free. The scenes inside Lahore’s hospitals captured my imagination — the long lines of people ready to give blood to the victims. This healing blood of Muslims and Christians would mingle, and bring relief to many.
A few shed blood, to spread terror and fear.
Thousands give blood, to heal and unite.
The supplies came from Lahore, that magical and cultured city of Pakistan, but they also came from Karachi, in many ways Lahore’s “rival” city. Lahoris and Karachi citizens, Muslims and Christians, men and women, Sunni and Shi’a, reached out to one another through blood, through soul, through love. This is the best of the Pakistan, the best of humanity. Let us shine a light on this response, acknowledge their humanity, and redeem our own in the process.
“Look for the helpers.
You’ll always find people who are helping.”
We do live in a wounded, yet beautiful world. The temptation is always to amplify the hatred of the fear-mongers. Let us hang on to the good. Let us seek the good, become the beautiful, and amplify the lovely.