James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

The Inauguration: Karachi Perspective

by James G. Beldock on February 4, 2009

[ed note: for se­cu­rity rea­sons, I was un­able to post this un­til I re­turned from Pakistan. Yesterday’s kid­nap­ping of an American UN Officialnear the same re­gion I vis­ited (the Sind province) pro­vides a vivid ex­pla­na­tion of why.]

There was some­thing sur­real about watch­ing President Obama take the oath of of­fice from a ho­tel room in Karachi, Pakistan. Several times, I won­dered whether there were more sui­cide bomb bar­ri­ers sur­round­ing his dais or my ho­tel. Suicide bombers had nearly de­stroyed the ho­tel a year or two ear­lier, and the pre­dictable reaction—to erect suf­fi­cient ve­hi­cle bar­ri­ers to stop more than one si­mul­ta­ne­ous attack—had of course been im­ple­mented. And so I watched, from 13,000 miles away, as America took what I pro­foundly hope will be the first of many steps to­wards reestab­lish­ing its in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion as a sym­bol of free­dom, all the while know­ing that I was un­der strict or­ders from our hosts not to leave the build­ing.

All around me were lit­tle se­cu­rity in­struc­tion sheets, thought­fully Xeroxed by the ho­tel staff and placed in every room. From the typ­i­cal (“this wa­ter is un­safe for drink­ing; kindly en­joy the com­pli­men­tary bot­tle of min­eral wa­ter pro­vided”) to the stern (“do not stand on bal­cony; snipers may be ac­tive”), the warn­ings com­bined to de­liver the mes­sage that, thanks to the ef­forts of less than 1% of the pop­u­la­tion, Westerners are sim­ply not wel­come in Pakistan. 99% of Pakistanis we met were hope­ful, in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, happy to talk to an American (and to ask us about our new president—more about that in a dif­fer­ent post). But all I had to do was look out my ho­tel room win­dow to re­al­ize that it is the 1% who rule the coun­try.

View from my Karachi Hotelroom

View from my Karachi Hotelroom

As they so of­ten do, this pic­ture tells the story bet­ter than I can. The bal­cony is en­closed in a net, lest grenades be thrown up onto the land­ing. The wires above the pool are for god-knows-what se­cu­rity tech­nique. (My guess: since they are ei­ther grounded or en­er­gized, prob­a­bly an anti-eaves­drop­ping mea­sure which dou­bles as a mech­a­nism for de­feat­ing ra­dio fre­quency bomb trig­gers, al­though my mo­bile phone worked just fine un­der­neath them, so per­haps not.) There were mag­ne­tome­ters, x-ray ma­chines in the lobby, and nearly every en­trance to every build­ing was peo­pled by thor­oughly un-rea­sur­ing armed guards. There were small trucks parked in the park­ing lots of both “Western” ho­tels, each filled with four chain-smok­ing Pakistani in­fantry­men, on top of which was mounted what looked like an M60 (.50 cal­iber ma­chine gun). Two bomb-sniff­ing Labrador re­triev­ers worked the park­ing lot. ID checks were per­formed end­lessly.

I doubt that any ex­pe­ri­ence since 9/11 has re­minded me that this re­ally is a war. Not a war which gives our gov­ern­ment the right to ab­ro­gate our Constitution, but a war nonethe­less. And un­til it ends, Americans trav­el­ing abroad had bet­ter re­mem­ber that the ac­tions of our own gov­ern­ment (and in par­tic­u­lar the re­cently-de­parted ad­min­is­tra­tion) cat­alyze re­ac­tions abroad which pose as grave a threat to our well-be­ing as any other. (Until 2002, there had been no at­tacks against Western tar­gets in Karachi. That all started af­ter we re­acted to 9/11.) In the end, no mat­ter how hope­ful I am that the in­au­gu­ra­tion of President Obama will set us off to right­ing our stand­ing world­wide, we will re­main “the en­emy” for a long time to come.

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Ezra Venetos February 5, 2009 at 2:23 pm

I was reading up about Shotspotter. Sounds like a fantastic solution to a serious problem of gun violence in our cities. I did notice that Dallas and Houston are not using it. Let’s bring it down here to Texas. It has been a long time James. Great to see you’re well and successful. Your Karachi blog is very interesting too. I think that a large segment of our population does realize that the actions of our Government cause real threats to Americans abroad and invite potential threats to Americans at home. The question is, what is to be done about this? Our foreign policies have always been a matter of contention. I’m not sure that the Iraq War will not have lasting negative effects for decades to come. But, We still have no conclusive solutions to this problem of terrorism at home and abroad.

nicolas February 6, 2009 at 11:00 pm

sir, that’s a whole different mindset you need to explain barbaric action those guys take.
One example. even at the worst of the terrorist war in algeria in the 90’s, which did not involve any american action, and a fortiori not the 1 pct you point at, 99pct of the native were friendly and open etc..
That did not prevent people being throat slit murdered in restaurants, schools, and other location you would not associate with a conflict.

The world does not revolve around the usa, and your view, because its grievance implies so, is not a valid frame of analysis.

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