Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Beyond FACTS: “The Long War” by Charles Sennott

On my way to pick up the kids from school, I often tune into NPR’s The World. A recent World report on “The Long War” in Afghanistan nearly led me to pull over to the side of the road and weep. The damage done to the international community’s view of Americans in the past few years distresses and disturbs me. In the report, Charles Sennott, a reporter from The Boston Globe, spoke about his recent experience in Pakistan with a leading cleric who supports Pakistan’s President—a U.S. ally—but also supports Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. Asked how he can justify this paradox and promote a “violent interpretation of Islamic faith,” the cleric dismissed Sennott and proceeded to preach a sermon which succinctly answered Sennott’s questions: “We are friends of Osama because the Western world is against Muslims,” he stated, adding that he and his followers support President Musharraf despite the fact that the Pakistani leader is forced to deal with the U.S. “because America is a superpower.”

My next-door neighbors are from Pakistan, and I do not hate them. We’ve never discussed religion because, frankly, the religion they practice is none of my business. Americans in large cities on both coasts have neighbors and co-workers who are Muslim. They travel on subways and trains with people from Pakistan and other Muslim nations every day and do not bother them, question them, or hate them. I’m appalled that our government, in a few short years, has done so much to portray our country as hate-filled and prejudiced. As Charles Sennott’s report from Pakistan continued, however, I realized people in Muslim countries have been given many concrete reasons not only to view us with distrust, but to consider the U.S. a horrific enemy that deserves to be attacked.

Sennott’s story concluded in the Dir province along the Afghan-Pakistani border. In a small village, a young man named Shah Mohammed told the story of his imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay. He speaks, Sennott says, until “his face grows despondent, and his thoughts fragment.” Shah Mohammed, a baker in his family’s business, was apprehended at age 21 in 2001 for no reason other than a suspicion he might be associated with the Taliban. After 18 months of torture—torture—by Americans in Guantanamo Bay that led Shah Mohammed to attempt suicide four times, someone finally checked his alibis and decided he was innocent. He was not given any sort of apology or reparations. He was simply returned to his village, where his story has been told and retold and spread to neighboring villages, compelling thousands of angry young men to take up arms and battle the Americans.

I have nephews in their early 20s, and I can tell you if someone arrested one of them for no reason and tortured him for 18 months, leading him to attempt suicide four times and then leaving him to struggle with demons the rest of his life, I’d be incensed. The family of Shah Mohammed say “his treatment at Guantanamo destroyed the mind and the soul of a young man who was once confident and adventurous.” Their neighbors ask, “Why did they do all this with an innocent man?” And the hatred against Americans grows and grows.

I’m posting on Sennott’s brave report because it reveals the points of view of people on the other side of the globe who’ve come to revile us for very personal, painful reasons. It’s critical that we learn of others’ perspectives not only within our own communities but within the entire world in which we live. Perhaps one day such a collective awareness of what’s gone so terribly awry with American foreign relations will lead us to insist our leaders extend long-overdue apologies to innocent people like Shah Mohammed, offer reparations for the many crimes—yes, crimes—we’ve committed, and pave the path to a lasting peace with all nations. While Iraq disintegrates and Afghanistan heads to treacherous times with the frightening resurgence of the Taliban, the least we Americans can do is pray and pray and vote the people responsible for such destruction out of office. Maybe then, with new leadership, we can hope to rebuild our own self-confidence as well as our international reputation; maybe then we can hope to hear good news on the radio for a change.

Photo © National Geographic


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