[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.
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.