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Media Literacy 101: Of Mothers, Pakistan, Suicide Bombs, and Track II Diplomacy

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - After sending a text message to say "I'm fine," what do you tell family, friends and colleagues back home about the place you're in that has just been struck by a suicide bomb that has made front-page news around the world?

I'm puzzled about what to say to people about this country of Pakistan, where I lived for a year and a half almost 20 years ago, and have visited repeatedly since.

Do I tell them that sector F-8/3, where the suicide bomber struck the UN World Food Program office, killing 5 and wounding a half dozen more, is where many diplomats and foreigners live, and that each of those houses has walls 15 feet high and automatic weapon-carrying guards inside the gates? But if I tell them that, aren't I obliged to tell the full truth - that I had drinks late today at a house not far away, with a senior US official who couldn't have been more at ease with being in the country?

Do I tell them that the blast occurred just a couple of blocks away from the home of a Pakistani professor colleague where I visited this evening? But if I tell them that, don't I have to tell them that when I was at her house tonight, her 85-year-old mother, who heard the bomb go off around noon, was more worried about her daughter's driving on Islamabad's busy streets than about living so close to the attack?

Do I tell my American friends that I spent several hours this afternoon, shortly after the blast, at an outdoor shopping market not much farther away - a shopping area that itself has been a target of a suicide bombing? Yet if I say that don't I have to tell them that I spent a wonderful few hours looking at rhinestone-studded sandals, trying on glittering gold chandelier earrings and chatting with the store owners?

It so happened that at just about the same moment as the suicide bomber struck the UN office, I was sitting across town in a classroom of Pakistani graduate students listening to them talk about their research. In a room of 21 students, both male and female - a couple of the women fully veiled - 14 of them were writing about the impact of United States' post-9/11 conduct of war in Afghanistan, Pakistan or in the Middle East.

It could have been at the same moment of the blast that I spoke with one handsome and articulate man at the end of the table whose interest was in the damage the recent years have posed to "human security" in Pakistan. A few minutes later, a couple of seats away, I spoke with another man who was researching the rise in suicide bombings in the country. They both attributed the new level and kind of violence to US engagement in the region. Their questions to me? "How literate are Americans about Pakistan...and if the public isn't well-informed, then how can US policymakers be held to responsible decision-making about our country?"

These were good questions, and in hindsight this evening, they appear to be even better questions than I realized when I was called to answer them. What do we, who know in-person about this country on the front line, tell the world about this place?

Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan have been in American news almost every single day for the past number of years. I said to the class that if they were to track US coverage of the world for a month by sticking pins into a map, that some regions of the world would be almost entirely bare of pins: much of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance. But Pakistan and Afghanistan would be bristling with them.

But I admitted that that doesn't mean that Americans understand Pakistan in the way that those 21 students in the room passionately wanted their home understood. Too much of what comes back to the US about Pakistan is breaking news of such events as a suicide attack, and not enough is about the people who are here, about what they care about, about what they fear. We Americans project our own fears, our own concerns on them.

Let me suggest then that journalism needs its own variant of Track II diplomacy: that both American and Pakistani media need to make more deliberate efforts to communicate and organize a full range of information that can help their publics as well as policymakers develop more and different strategies of engagement.

Let's not leave this story about the bombing of the World Food Program's offices to be only about the killed and injured, about the UN response, and the international reaction - as absolutely essential as that news is.

Americans need to hear from the students, the elderly mothers and the shoe salesmen as life goes on for them. And I need to tell the Pakistanis that at least this one American thinks their country is so much more than a breaking-news story.

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