The week after the horrors in Nice was another brutal one, a visceral slog through the depths of today’s insanity, focused mainly on Germany. An axe attack in Germany. A suicide bombing by a Syrian refugee in Germany. Another German tragedy, an American-style mass shooting, was (seemingly) not directed or inspired by ISIS or al-Qaeda, or any militancy at all, save for the militancy of a disturbed criminal mind (which: same with Nice, and Munich, and Orlando. Same mindset; barely-different justifications).
There was also a massive suicide bombing in Afghanistan, in which 80 people were killed and another 230 were wounded. It’s a strange number, 80. On the day of the Nice attack, as the number kept spiraling upward, 80 seemed unimaginable. It feels different in Afghanistan, though. It feels almost normal. We’re inured to violence there, in a way that dehumanizes the victims of ISIS. Even when lip-service is paid, even (especially) when politicians say that “ISIS kills more Muslims than anyone else”, there’s a feeling that those lives don’t matter. They certainly don’t grab the headlines.
That’s partly a man-bites-dog thing, of course: Afghanistan has been in a state of near-constant war for nearly 40 years, and we’re fatigued. Same with Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and anywhere else where people are seemingly constantly being killed. It seems like part of normal life, just the regular course of things. We have trouble extending empathy to imagine them feeling the same kind of pain we can envision in France or Germany.
The thing is though, one of the grossest tragedies of the Afghanistan suicide bombing is who the targets were, and why they were there. The targets were the Hazara, Persian-speaking Shi’ites, a minority based mainly in Afghanistan who are the frequent target of the Taliban, of ISIS, of al-Qaeda, of the Pashtun, and others. They are frequently kicked around, and struggle for protection. Iran is the one constant friend.
So, then, why were they all in a group, able to be targeted?
The protesters were marching against government plans for a major power project to bypass Bamiyan, a predominantly Hazara province in the central highlands. Following similar protests in May, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, established a commission to look into the issue but government attempts to find a compromise failed. On 19 June, a contract was signed to build a smaller electricity line through Bamiyan, which did not placate Hazara activists.
The 500-kilovolt TUTAP power line, which would connect the Central Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan with electricity-hungry Afghanistan and Pakistan, was originally set to pass through the central province.
But the government re-routed it through the mountainous Salang pass north of Kabul, saying the shorter route would speed up the project and save millions of dollars.
Electricity. Power. Zoning. The desire to be economically and literally connected. The decision to bypass them might have been to save money, or it might have been to further put the screws on the Hazara, or it may have been both. The former might have been an excuse for the latter, or maybe just a coverup for it. The reasons are part of Afghan history and politics, and I don’t feel comfortable speaking to them.
But the protest? That’s normal life. That’s a group of people who are tired of their situation, who feel oppressed, and who want something that is normal. Take away the historical oppression, and imagine it as anything else: a potentially lucrative and life-bettering development was going to happen (imagine it if you want a railroad or a dam or a base to build the newest military joint-strike hybrid disaster) and then it was taken way. The hydroelectric plant was supposed to go near this town but the TVA shifted it away. There are a million parallels around the world. Anyone would be mad, and anyone would protest.
That’s exactly the point: this is normal life, or at the very least, the desire for it, taken away in a energy-filled pulse, that pulverizes organs and rends limbs and makes the face of life unrecognizable. These are (and were) human beings, who despite living in a land of war, many of whom have known war and terror their whole lives, who are willing to stand outside and protest electrical lines. They petition for surveyors and government project planners to look over their notes again and maybe try something new. They are standing up in the city council meeting of a mid-sized Illinois town and asking for the baseball diamond on 4th to be maintained.
There’s no simple answer for terrorism, and the extension of empathy (which can’t just be willed, not even for someone who tries) won’t end it. The recognition that Muslim lives are real won’t stop ISIS, especially when they are the ones taking Muslim lives like a joyless Queen of Hearts. But the dehumanization of Muslim lives, whether that is in the headlines or in the speeches of politicians who treat refugees like a murderous and faceless horde, serves the recruitment purposes of our enemies. It can help a non-political, non-active, and not-even-particularly-religious immigrant decide that they are going to move from petty crimes and personal abuse to a mass killing, in the vague name of some group they barely know. It’s a cycle that will take a generation to break out of. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to start.