A struggle against forgetting By Ghazi Salahuddin


With whatever exploits in whichever domain, you cannot ever break the shackles of history. But you have some choices as to what to do with it – pay heed to it or sweep it under the carpet. And how have we, as a nation, fared in our encounter with the history of our times?

There is this overwhelming distraction of the United States and the world at large observing the twentieth anniversary of an incredible act of terror that changed the course of history. For all those who are old enough, the images of 9/11 are part of their living experience.

The timing of this anniversary, observed yesterday, emphasises history’s own magical realism – to borrow an expression from literary fiction. The Taliban are back in Afghanistan and the oath-taking of the new ministers on the same date – September 11 – is more than a coincidence.

Because the thoughts and the passions that media coverage of the 9/11 anniversary has aroused are so intense, I need to narrow down the scope of my observations and pick out some points that I have agonised about in the context of how we have dealt with our historical experiences.

In the first place, Pakistan very much figures in the story of 9/11 and the overall ‘war on terror’. Our rulers had decided, in a hurry, to be on the side of the US when it attacked the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2001. There is so much more to this entanglement, including the American incursion into our territory to get Osama bin Laden. Finally, there is the reality of our interest in ‘naya’ Afghanistan.

There are bound to be many different angles from which all these events have to be viewed and examined. At the heart of it is the nature of the American response to 9/11 and its consequences. Trying to be brief, let me quote some words from a column published on Friday in The New York Times: “The damage Sept 11 did to the United States was more profound than even many pessimists anticipated…… Bin Laden didn’t build the trap America fell into. We constructed it ourselves”.

Obviously, something as big as 9/11 has to be fully debated, explored and confronted squarely. We have evidence that America has done that and is doing so on this anniversary. It should be recalled that an exhaustive ‘9/11 Commission Report’ was published in 2004 and its narrative was so powerful that the book became a bestseller.

For that matter, this weekend, the book that is number one on The New York Times’s nonfiction bestsellers’ list is titled: ‘The Afghanistan Papers’, written by Craig Whitlock. It is about America’s handling of Afghanistan after 9/11. Last week, President Biden ordered declassification of secret documents from the government’s investigation into the 9/11 terror attacks. This will be done over the next six months.

Compare this with how we have dealt with our great tragedy of December 16, 1971. It is so heartbreaking a subject for me that I dare not go into any details. Since this happened fifty years ago – the landmark anniversary is not likely to be properly observed in Pakistan three months from now – our youth would not know much about it. There seems to be a conscious effort to not remember 1971 or relate it to what has been happening to us since then.

I have noticed this refrain in some statements and analyses made in the States about 9/11: “Never forget”. President Biden had expanded this thought when he said, after the terror attack at Kabul Airport during that massive evacuation in late August, when he said: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay”.

To not forget is a strong and salutary impulse in one’s life. It has a bearing on one’s sanity and purpose in life. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa was based on the concept that “we will forgive but we will not forget”. My favourite Kundera quotation is that “man’s struggle against power is memory’s struggle against forgetting”. There is a hint here that not forgetting the past – a dimension of history – is necessary to deal with the exigencies of the present.

So far as history is concerned, it goes back across centuries. But what remains within the grasp of living memory has an additional significance. A lived experience is more valuable and more useful in understanding an event. Personal narratives become an integral part of history. Now, 1971 is fading from living memory and we are losing a precious national resource. For Americans, 9/11 has great emotional relevance because so many of them can recall what happened to them and to their country on that day and after.

What has happened to Pakistan within the range of living memory is also very traumatic and potentially a reason for concerted action in a particular direction. We had suffered another tragedy on December 16 when our schoolchildren were massacred by terrorists in 2014. What did it do to us? Not much.

Incidentally, we also have our own 9/11 that tells a lot about what we have become as a nation. On September 11, 2012, there was this Baldia fire in Karachi in which 289 persons were burnt to death. It was a dastardly act of terror that failed to touch the nation’s conscience. No laws regarding safety at workplaces were changed – and there was another incident in Karachi about two weeks ago in which eighteen persons were killed.

Again, I have a reference from the US; let me conclude with a glimpse of what happened when 146 garment workers, most of them women, perished in a factory fire in New York in March 1911, one hundred years before Baldia. It was a national tragedy that changed many things, including safety and labour laws. The entire city came out for the victims’ funeral. Books have been written on the tragedy and there are numerous documentaries on it. Would someone make a documentary on, say, why Pakistan was not moved by the Baldia fire?