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Benazir Bhutto: A Killing and Three Funerals

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When you know someone personally and have seen them recently, their death at the hands of terrorists seems more real, and more nauseating, than when you hear about the terrible killings of strangers. Somehow, you are more likely to imagine real flesh and real blood and bone. When you see a photo of the coffin, with a window for looking inside, and something in there wrapped in white satin, you are likely to remember the physical person, sitting opposite you on a sofa in a black shalwar kameez, and how she sat with her legs crossed and talked about her children, and smiled and looked at you and served you cookies -- and then how, less than 24 hours ago, she was waving and smiling at the crowd two seconds before she was shot, and then bombed. It's an eerie feeling. History is stopped so neatly and finally by an assassination, and then sent spiraling off in a new direction. It's such an effective political tool. One has only to remember the killing of Yitzhak Rabin.

This is a funeral not just for Benazir but for the Bhutto era in Pakistan. The Bhutto family stood at an important historical intersection for Pakistan: the place where old autocratic feudal landholders and their political methods finally met the modern world. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir's father and the family patriarch, was such a landholder, whose hundreds of thousands of family-owned acres in Sindh province were worked by virtual serfs who would bow and kiss his hand when he toured the fields. He used his authority among the people and politicians of Sindh and his warm relations with the US to cobble together a populist agenda and international program for Pakistan that won him support among the masses and world stature. Among his agendas was Pakistan's nuclear program. "My father," Benazir told me proudly, when I talked to her a month before she returned to Pakistan, "gave Pakistan the nuclear bomb."

When she first came to Harvard at the age of 16, Benazir, who had never had to lift a finger on her own behalf before, was like a princess from the Raj, raised by ayahs, nursemaids, and butlers. Some of that feeling of sheer entitlement and condescension was never to leave her. A minister who once confronted her when she was prime minister recalls her saying to him, "How dare you speak to me like that!" That was the queen in her. But there was also the young slender politician who -- for all her Harvard and Oxford education -- was willing to climb up onto the roofs of cars and talk to huge crowds of men, with a bullhorn her only defense, as Christopher Hitchens recalled in his piece in Slate yesterday. Back then, the crowds listened. No guns, no bombs. Like her father, Benazir was promoting a kind of democracy for Pakistan. Indeed, she ran for office in the shadow of the gallows where Zulfikar Bhutto had been hanged by President Zia ul Haq, an assassination dressed up as a de jure execution.

Benazir's funeral is also a funeral for recent American policy in Pakistan. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush's policies have failed in Pakistan, have failed to conform to the political facts on the ground. Musharraf has not been an entirely satisfactory lapdog for Bush, because he understands that in today's Pakistan, if you sit in the American lap your ambitions will be smothered. And to the degree that he has bowed to U.S. wishes, his popularity among Pakistanis has been undermined. Gone are the days when Reagan's or Nixon's approval could boost the standing of a Pakistani leader at home, as in the cases of first Zulfikar Bhutto, and then Benazir. Osama bin Laden is far more popular in Pakistan than Bush or Musharraf, which explains why, in Pakistan today, bin Laden is (theoretically at least) alive and Benazir Bhutto is dead. Pakistan is a changed country whose process of change was only accelerated by September 11th.

It's not accidental, by the way, that Danny Pearl got into his trouble by misjudging the complexity and danger of this same Pakistan. Like Pearl, Benazir was using an operating manual for an older, somewhat gentler Pakistan. Back then, it was a Bhutto-worshipping Pakistan, one where the people, no matter how fired up and by whom, would not touch a hair on the head of a Bhutto; and only an authority like Zia could harm the family -- Zia, or another Bhutto.

Somewhere in Benazir's mind -- in spite of ten years of daily bulletins from people back home, in spite of all the threats and menaces, in spite of what she saw on the ground upon her return, and even in spite of the blistering, bloody attack of that first day -- somewhere in her mind, this Pakistan still existed. This Pakistan where the old power elites still ruled, and where owning land meant running the country. Where you could still trust the old post-Partition power bases, and stand up and wave to the people royally from your car. This was still the turf on which she ran, with Bush alongside. She refused to accept that this Pakistan, her imaginative homeland, was just a memory, as people will refuse to do when they are orphaned, or have lost their homes and families.

But in fact, the Pakistan that Bhutto loved, and to which she was returning, was no longer a reality. Now the country is nominally run by a corrupt Army that feeds off international aid, by a shadowy intelligence organization that plays every side of the game, and by radical warlords who control their fiefdoms along the Afghan border. Intellectually of course, Benazir knew this. While she held her imaginary Pakistan in one dreamy compartment of her mind, she tried to deal with contemporary Pakistan in the more practical compartment. Army, ISI, warlords... The first, she agreed to do business with, no matter how unpopular this stance was (the Americans demanded it). The second, she reviled publicly (she knew her real enemy). And the third, she vowed to destroy. Still, as her father's daughter, she couldn't obey the ineluctable logic of the new Pakistan: wouldn't stay inside, wouldn't shun the people, wouldn't go back into exile after the first attack.

She thrived on the drama of danger precisely because she assumed that she would always escape. And she believed you had to go to the people because she knew that -- Bush or no Bush -- her power resided with her popularity. After her first two degraded premierships, she was seeking political redemption, and for that, she had to plunge, as her father before her had, and as she herself always had, into the constituency. In the case of the Bhuttos, the constituency is all Pakistan. Interestingly, if her people died because of her, she minded, but not too much. It was a collateral damage she could put up with, even when, as in October, the death toll went past 100.

And now she has died alongside them, something she was unable to imagine.

"Death is a proof of sincerity," Graham Greene wrote in The Comedians. That holds true here.

As for the motivations of the killers. Their real targets were secular liberalism, the Bhutto dynasty, and the U.S. What they feared was a Bhutto premiership, beginning in about ten days, when the elections were to take place. Whoever they are exactly, they see an opening to power and control now, and they would not permit Benazir to stand in their way.

LA Times: The Benazir I Knew

Amy's profile of Benazir Bhutto appears in the December/January issue of More magazine.

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