05/09/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the American Public

On my Facebook page on May 1, the second anniversary of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I re-posted the link to an article of mine originally published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. In the distress of that extraordinary moment, pulling an all-nighter in a motel room in Fort Worth, Texas, I had written:

As I watch over and over the mobs in New York and Washington, I fear two things. One is that too many Pakistanis are too traumatised to lay aside their anger and frustration. "WE HATE AMERICANS!!!" a Pakistani I don't know personally told me on Facebook, just as I was finishing this piece. When I pointed out that I'm American and asked if he hated me, he replied, "I hate all of u!!" The other thing I fear is that too few Americans appreciate the difference between global war and a giant football game

I had titled my article "The urgent importance of mutual respect." Last week, my re-posting of it elicited this response from Bryan Zaydel, a mailman in Detroit:

Know what's more important than "mutual respect"? Destroying those that wish to destroy us. Fortunately, you bleeding heart liberals are far outnumbered by people who don't give a rats a#$ about what the world thinks of us.

I don't know Bryan Zaydel, though it happens somehow that, through the magic of Facebook, he and I know someone in common. It wouldn't matter what he has to say, and I wouldn't call him out by name, except that these days, such words reverberate instantly worldwide, and impressionable young people read them and, like the Pakistani quoted above, respond in kind. All of which accomplishes less than nothing, because it stokes an atmosphere in which more violence by "us" against "them" (and vice versa) can seem justified.

2013-04-16-ReturnofaKingcover.jpgAlso last week, I had the pleasure of hearing William Dalrymple  speak at the Seattle Asian Art Museum about his new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42. As I said in my HuffPost review, any summary a reviewer could offer would be the merest potted version of what took the author years of research to stitch together, so I prefer to urge you to read the book itself. And please do read it, especially if you're American; there are things in it, facts as well as truths, that you need to know. In Seattle, Dalrymple said things that I'm sure he says every time he gives his slide show:

Russia crushes liberty [according to British propaganda]. The British, despite having crushed liberty in the princely states in India, do not see themselves in quite the same light. For freedom's sake, they must conquer Central Asia. ... The reality is that it's a pipe dream. ... [A misunderstood and overblown intelligence find] allows an ideologically driven group of hawks to have the war that they're already determined to have. ... And, rather like Wolfowitz in 2001, it all looks as if it's a done deal. And in that smugness lie the seeds of their undoing. ... Another thing that happens - of course this would never happen today -- is that they think they've secured Afghanistan, so they go off and invade someplace else. ... The regiments that are deserted by their British officers in the Khord Kabul [Pass] are the regiments that rise up first in 1857. ... But the British can't let this go, because they know that if they do, they'll lose their Indian empire.

The relevance to more recent history comes through loud and clear in both Dalrymple's presentation and his book. I hope it's also clear what all this has to do with Bryan Zaydel in Detroit. Like me or, for that matter, like William Dalrymple, the only power Zaydel has to influence public events is through his words. Freedom of speech is a right but, if any of us uses words publicly in a damaging or dangerous way, the rest of us are both free and obligated to hold him or her to account.

At the same time, what the juxtaposition of Dalrymple's Seattle visit and Zaydel's vitriol brings home is that, important though it is, the earned wisdom of someone like Dalrymple will reach only those Americans who want to be reached -- or, more optimistically, who know that they need to be reached. In the U.S., there really are three distinct publics: officialdom and the East Coast "policy elite"; the liberal coastal cities and sundry university towns; and the rest of the country. On his recent U.S. tour, Dalrymple reached two of those: audiences in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, plus a briefing at the White House. Officialdom will be receptive or not, depending on their political predilection of the moment. Affluent, literate, largely white and somewhat smug liberal audiences like the one in Seattle are appreciative and buy books, but don't need to be influenced.

William Dalrymple lives in India and can't be everywhere, except through his books and other writings. I'm also, for my part, doing what I can. So are many others. But the challenge is as big as America itself, and the question is: How can the Bryan Zaydels of the world or -- more feasibly -- the millions who live in places like Detroit and Fort Worth and are well-meaning but frightened and bruised by all the recent history we've lived through, be persuaded that "they" don't all "wish to destroy us"?

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called "intelligent and compelling" by Mohsin Hamid and "wonderful" by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: Facebook: Join his email list here.