Saturday, January 15, 2011


Driving down fourth avenue in Brooklyn on a chilly January morning, I was shaken. The radio broke the news that a United States congresswoman was shot at point-blank range. Soon it was known that the congresswoman was from the Democratic Party and she was shot outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona, while holding a public gathering. That information alone was enough for me to arrive at my first conclusion. The toxic political climate that had been brewing over the recently concluded election cycle had claimed its first victim.

Four days earlier, a continent away, another politician was shot and killed. The Governor of Punjab in Pakistan was gunned down by his own twenty six year old bodyguard. The assassin later claimed that he killed the Governor because he was an outspoken liberal in a country that is slowly but steadily being eaten away by extremism and intolerance.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords survived her head injury but six others lost their lives. A day later a mug shot of the assassin, twenty two year old Jared Lee Laughner, was released to the public. The expression on his bald face sent a chill and a picture began to emerge of a man who had supposedly gone insane, but not insane enough to not know his constitutional rights. A few months back Jared had exercised his second amendment right by purchasing a police issue Glock semi-automatic pistol, and then managed to acquire an unusually large amount of ammunition from a local Super Wal-Mart store without raising an alarm. He exercised his ultimate constitutional right guaranteed to every United States citizen by pleading the fifth when he was arrested by the police. The fifth amendment to the United States constitution protects all citizens from self incriminating themselves, when arrested for a crime.

A few days after Governor Salman Taseer was assassinated in Pakistan, a video of his assassin appeared on the Internet. It was recorded soon after the killing. A policeman keeping guard recorded it on his cell phone. In the video Malik Mumtaz Qadri is seen singing a hymn in praise of Allah, pleading him to look after those who work in his favor. The melodic and serene manner in which he recites the song as the policemen around him listen in devotion, is chilling.

Unlike Jared, Malik was hailed as a hero by many hardliners in Pakistan. He was showered with rose petals while a crowd cheered, as he was led away by the police.

While the murders in Arizona launched a debate in America about the need for civility in public discourse, the assassination in Pakistan seems to have had an opposite effect. It has deepened the divide between those who want to see an extreme version of Sharia law take root in Pakistan and those who want to forge a modern nation in the secular vision of their founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In America, only time will tell how long civility will withstand the onslaught of politics.

While there is no comparison between Pakistan and America as nations in terms of their evolution towards democracy, there is one thing they share in common. Both have had a long and checkered history of assassinations. Most assassinations in Pakistan have been politically motivated, while in America lone crazy gunmen looking for national attention, have mostly pulled the trigger.

From all that has been unearthed about Jared Laughner, it seems like he had no overpowering political motivation to attack the congresswoman. The profile that emerges of him, is that of a man who was lost, because he found himself rejected by society at all levels. His parents, friends and family could not fill the void that was left inside of him. The only way he could get every one's attention was to go commit an act that would put him in the spotlight once and for all. And so Jared Laughner joined the long list of assassins who left everyone puzzled and distraught when they resorted to committing a heinous act.

Every time there is an assassination or an attempted assassination, or a massacre, like the ones at Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech in 2007, the subject of "gun control" enters the national debate, and soon vanishes as the news cycle about the tragedy ends. So yet again, the issue of "gun control" was raised and familiar words were uttered once again by some politicians "guns don't kill people, people kill people".

There is a bizarre and outdated constitutional amendment that rests inside the American constitution that guarantees every citizen the right to bear arms, soon after it grants them the right to free speech, expression and religion. The second amendment reads "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed". This law was enshrined into the document in 1787 when people resolved disputes by drawing muskets that shot little metal marbles, one at a time reaching just a few yards from the gunman. Today America has one of the most efficient police forces in the world and a justice system that for the most part delivers, yet the right to bear arms is still held more sacred and dear, than the right to free speech by many. This strong desire to hold on to an arcane law makes America the most heavily armed society in the world, leading to some of the highest rates of gun violence in the world. In a bizarre turn of events, the sale of the particular gun and magazine extender Jared used in unleashing mayhem that morning, have skyrocketed across America since the incident.

Today the most sophisticated guns are manufactured in the United States and are easily available to buy at stores and online with an ID and a credit card. According to a recently published New York Times article, Federal agents found that about 90 percent of the 12,000 pistols and rifles the Mexican authorities recovered from drug dealers last year and asked to be traced came from dealers in the United States, most of them in Texas and Arizona. Arizona was where Jared Laughner grew up and later came into possession of a weapon with as much ease as a lollipop. This is something very telling about American society, a culture that has struggled to come to terms with its bloody past, and still struggles to keep violence out of civil society but fails again and again.

January 15th was the day Martin Luther King was born in this country. Every year he is remembered in the United States on this day, and this occasion is marked with a national holiday and a day of service and dedication. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968 by a gunman. While the assassin's motivations were never clearly proven, one thing was sure that a bullet wound is what killed Dr. King. Once again it was the bullets that maimed Gabrielle Giffords and killed Salman Taseer. If you take the gun out of the equation, all you are left with is intent. And intent can always be tamed, but a gun can accelerate that intent into action without any hesitation in a heart beat. It is what it is.