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Reflections On Benazir Bhutto's Assassination

Yesterday morning, en route to the hospital to have a blood sample taken for analysis, I heard on the radio that Benazir Bhutto had been shot and blown up along with about 20 of her followers and the suicide bomber, “a thin young man on a motorbike.”

Pervaz Musharraf griped a couple of weeks ago that western support for Mrs. Bhutto had to do with her beautiful English and the fact that “she is very good-looking.” Mrs. Bhutto’s articulate intelligence, beauty, and fine, strong manner surely increased the admiration and even devotion my wife and I had for her as she handled fluently and frankly the questions of the excellent Lehrer Report interviewer, Margaret Warner; Warner’s second interview with her ended with the two intelligent fifty-year old women clearly admiring and liking each other.

I don’t know what kind of life Margaret Warner has led but it is almost surely much less dramatic than Bhutto’s. Whose life wouldn’t be? The first woman leader of a Muslim country (in 1988 when she was 35), Mrs. Bhutto was accused of and dismissed for corruption; she ran and won a second time in 1993, was again accused and dismissed. Apparently, opposition to her came not only from Moslem traditionalists but from the Punjab elite and land-owning “feudals” she accused of being the “destabilizers” of Pakistan.

Mrs. Bhutto was no stranger to bloody violence and prison life; her father was executed by the state he served as prime minister; two of her brothers were killed under suspicious circumstances. Azif Zardar, the man Mrs. Bhutto married 20 years ago, the father of her three children, has been accused of corruption, exonerated by Pakistan’s auditor general, accused again and jailed for years. The accusations involve receiving commissions from such firms as France’s Dassault Aviation for getting Pakistani contracts. There are also accusations for gold smuggling. The Swiss and Polish governments have supposedly sent documents to Pakistani prosecutors which include the incrimination of Mrs. Bhutto.
Her recent return to Pakistan, first as a possible collaborator with Musharraf, then as his chief opponent in the January 8 election, involved exoneration from such charges. I myself cannot assess if the indictments are part of Pakistan’s political volatility or of Zardar and Mrs. Bhutto’s criminal greed.

How often Mrs. Bhutto looked back longingly at the learning years of her life I don’t know. After early schooling in Pakistan, she came to Harvard in 1969 and graduated four years later cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. She then went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, for four years of philosophy, politics and economics. There she was elected the first woman president of the Oxford Union. Perhaps such Lehrjahre only sharpened the ambition to succeed and redeem her father and to become one of the great women of Islam. Whether she proved to be a good, mediocre or terrible public servant (there are informed opinions behind each claim), whether she did enough for women and women’s rights which was an early plank in her platform, whether she weakened the power of the country’s elites, I don’t know. It was apparently enough to buoy her popularity as head of the Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest. She did not, apparently, see herself as a martyr. She told the interviewer Ann Curry that she wanted to live, that like her father who told her the day before his death that he would never see his grandchildren, she wanted to see hers, but before that, she felt that it was her duty to save her country. For that, she had the courage to face the dangers she knew well.

Courage led her to the Rawalpindi rally and then to the Ak-47 bullets fired by the “thin man on a motorcycle” when she raised her head from the limousine carrying her away from it yesterday. She died with her political boots on, in the full spin of impassioned politics.

Two days earlier, my wife and I watched a smaller saga of violence, scooped by CNN from one of its boiling cauldrons, Baghdad. Three masked men spotted a sturdy, jolly five-year-old boy, Yousouf, playing outside his home. They poured gasoline over him and ignited it. The rest of the program involved the almost miraculous salvation of the boy, his father risking his life to reach the CNN offices in Baghdad, their broadcast of Yousouf’s fate (not excluding close looks at his hoorribly burnt face). The broadcast raised enough money to bring the family to California where a wonderful cosmetic surgeon, Percy Grossman, began the many operations which will make Yousouf look more or less like other boys his age.
What my mind cannot digest is the minds of the three masked men as they did what they did to this little boy and as they are today. I can usually imagine myself doing very bad and even good things which I’ve not come close to actually doing. My professional work has involved putting myself into different situations and imagining them as seen by different sorts of people. However, the actions of these three men I cannot imagine. Horrors go on every single minute on this planet. We all know the names of today’s central stations of cruelty, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Iraq, we read daily of horrors erupting there and almost everywhere else on earth. I can imagine most of them. I can imagine the mind of the ‘thin man on the motorbike’ who killed Benzir Bhutto, but the minds of Yousouf’s incinerators pass beyond me. Is Yousouf but a footnote in their fierce mental history? Do they even remember the seconds it took to douse him with gasoline, to light the match and fire it up? I have no idea.

--Richard Stern