Sunday, May 08, 2011

Enough with the headlines please !

Let me say this up front: I don't believe in conspiracy theories. Neither do I have any special knowledge on the matter that makes me any kind of expert.

But I like to maintain a healthy skepticism of over-blown news, and this whole OBL business has led to some amazingly sensational news items.

The first I heard of the matter was on a news website on Monday morning, and as I switched on the TV to know more, CNN greeted me with this headline: OBL killed "outside Islamabad". As I live in Islamabad myself I was curious and concerned as to which outskirt of the city had this taken place in - as the headline implied. Only later as details emerged did we find out that it was actually in Abbotabad. Technically of course CNN was right - after all the entire world lies "outside Islamabad", but in terms of a news headline they had it completely wrong.

Since then, I've come across other headlines proclaiming that the incident took place in Abbotabad which is a "suburb" of Islamabad ! Lets get this clear folks, Abbotabad is _not_ a suburb of Islamabad, it is a completely separate city. I've lived in Islamabad all my live and I've never been to Abbotabad - heck I wouldn't even know how to get there.

Anyway, it doesn't matter I guess because the next set of headlines was even more sensational. The fact that it is very close to Pakistan Military Academy and therefore it must mean that Pakistan was complicit. This is a completely nonsensical argument because of two reasons.
 First of all, Pakistan is not a police state in which every house is routinely visited by authorities every month to confirm who lives there. As far as I know this is how it is in most of the civilized world: if you live in your house and don't cause any local trouble you are left alone to get on with your life - there is no state requirement to continuously prove who you are and why you are living there.

Secondly, this argument suffers from a fallacy. In hindsight, once you know which house to look for, it looks ridiculously easy to find it. But until it is found it could be just about any house in any city or town is Pakistan. Pakistan has a population of 170 Million - it has millions of houses. If you form a theory that someone must be hiding in a house in Pakistan, where do you begin the search ? How do you conduct it ? It's an impossible job. Imagine what the headlines would have been if the house happened to be in Lahore ("...was living in the heart of Punjab") or Karachi ("...was living in Pakistan's most important commercial city"), and people would have wondered "how could they not have looked in the heart of Punjab, after all it is the _heart_ !" The point is that any place can look obvious _after_ the fact, but how do you find it _before_ the fact ?

Then there is the argument that the house was 'custom-built' and had high walls and was bigger than any adjoining houses. So ? Zoning laws are not strict in Pakistan specially in smaller towns so it is not unusual to find big houses in the middle of small ones. And the way the security situation has been in Pakistan in the past few years, scores of houses have armed guards, barbed wires, security cameras, and barricades. It simply does not arouse suspicion. You really have to live through the kind of terror Pakistan has had to live thru to realize this. When I was growing up here in the 80's you would hardly ever see a security guard anywhere, but in the past few years Pakistan has had to face suicide bombings on a scale that makes it perfectly normal to see heavy guarded houses anywhere.
 Finally then, it boils down to intelligence.

Yes, that is how you zero-in on a wanted man: not by conducting house to house searches of an entire country, but by following intelligence leads. So may be it was an intelligence failures. But let us put this in perspective before jumping all over Pakistan and start implying that its intelligence "must have known". The US has been after this man for 10 years. They have arguably one of the most sophisticated intelligence machinery armed with the latest gizmos and monitoring technologies: why did it take so long to get to their mark ? Because it is hard ! it is hard to find a single man determined on hiding and having the resources to do so. So if it is indeed an intelligence failure, the blame cannot be put on Pakistan alone, nor does it automatically implicate anyone.

Once again, I don't know who did what, who knew what and when, or who is telling the truth and who is lying. I have no idea - nor do I like to conjecture. But it is irritating to see the entire world pile on to Pakistan in a collective holier-than-thou fit. The truth is out there I'm sure, but it is much more complicated than the over-simplifying sensational headlines that the media has been resorting to.

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