Thursday night, a dear friend of mine from Lahore, Pakistan who is a junior at Columbia came to visit my house. She brought her father with her. He was in town attending a medical meeting. (He’s a physician who owns clinics and a hospital in Lahore. His wife, also a doctor, owns a pharmaceutical company.) I’ve only ever seen my friend’s dad in Lahore, and somehow seeing him in my home was particularly moving to me. When I’m in Lahore, I’m always on unfamiliar ground, and I feel shy and tentative. He seems so confident and take-charge there. Now he was coming by to pick up baby shoes and toys and clothes for his daughter and her husband. I had intended to take them with me to Lahore in January, but learning of my mother’s death in the Abu Dhabi airport as I stood in line at the gate for the Pakistan flight, I had to turn around, and never made it to Lahore. My gifts for all my friends there–three of them have infants–have been sitting on my hallway landing the last several weeks.
The following day, news came that seven blasts took place in Lahore within 10 hours. They killed 40 people and injured about 100 others. But the news stories simply don’t convey what these events feel like to people who live in Lahore. I got a much better picture by reading my Lahore friends’ Facebook pages. The comments showed how distressed many of them were–because they knew people in the neighborhoods where the attacks took place. One friend asked another: “hey is everbody ok at your grandparents house. the blasts must be very close to where they live,” to which she replied, “Hi. Yes thanks…they r fine but ya it was pretty close…Imagine 8 blasts in one day…Its mindboggling really….They r literally throwing the mini bombs in peoples houses…This was my worst fear:-( hope you are fine and your family too?”
Imagine 7 blasts in Manhattan in 10 hours. One in the Village, another in Chinatown, a third in Times Square, a fourth in Murray Hill, a fifth on the upper West Side, a sixth in Battery Park and a seventh in Chelsea. Yet when newspapers write about these things in Lahore, they use this language: “The attacks, close to each other, struck a busy market inside the Lahore cantonment, home of the local army garrison. The suicide attackers appeared to target passing army vehicles, with six soldiers reportedly among the dead.” Or, this: “A pair of suicide bombers targeting army vehicles detonated explosives within seconds of each other Friday, killing at least 39 people in this eastern city and wounding nearly 100, police said. It was the fourth major attack in Pakistan this week, indicating Islamist militants are stepping up violence after a period of relative calm.”
The photographs from the Washington Post, The New York Times and the Guardian aren’t much better. They are the generic bombing photos we have seen too many times. A chaotic street with police. A woman’s face looking crazed with agony. Rescue vehicles and blocked traffic. What do these really tell us? That still another episode of violence has hit a faraway place.
I feel these stock phrases and stock images are part of why newspapers are in trouble. And part of why Facebook is ascendant. But perhaps I expect too much of newspapers. After all, newspaper editors assume that a reader understands intrinsically how disturbing these blasts would be to people nearby. But I wonder about the newspaper convention–in place for well over a hundred years now–of treating faraway events with much more detachment, less information and shorter stories than those that happen nearby. Hasn’t the internet brought the faraway close? Hasn’t the internet made what happens in Pakistan crucial to what happens here? And don’t we, as voters, deserve to understand, viscerally, humanly, what 7 blasts in 11 hours feels like to those whom we are prodding to fight and who are paying a price that we, here in New York, are not even thinking about, let alone paying?
As my friend and her father left my front stoop with shopping bags that carried a Fisher Price choo-choo train and red baby sandals, I wished I could be bringing them to Lahore. Because I can’t know what’s going on from reading the paper, or even from Facebook. I want to be there.