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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Just Another Country




The United States is neither a miracle nor a monster; it's just another country. As the world tries to make sense of the latest mass killing in an American school, this is a notion with little appeal for either Americans or foreigners. It is, however, true.


Most Americans, trained from infancy to regard their country as unique, tend to lurch directly from thinking that things in the United States are uniquely wonderful (when they go right) to believing that they are uniquely dreadful (when they go wrong).


Thus the Vietnam war, for those who opposed it, was not just a stupid blunder by the bumbling officials of an apprentice superpower; it was the most evil war ever waged on this planet. And the Colorado school massacre, coming on top of half a dozen similar incidents in the past two years, is not just the result of stupid laws and bad behavior; it is a metaphor for the decay of the American soul.


Many non-Americans take the same extreme positions. Some do so because they have a tangled emotional relationship with the fantasy America of the mass media, which they half-hope, half-fear represents their future too. Others agree simply because they hate America: You can imagine what Serbian propaganda is doing today with the school killings in Littleton.


So let us pull a long way back and consider more generally the horrors that happen in societies that are mostly made up of decent people. Between September and December of last year, for example, 87 cases of women being horribly burned by "stove-bursts" were recorded by two major hospitals in the neighboring Pakistani cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Almost all of these cases, according to Shahnaz Bokhari of the Progressive Women's Association, were actually deliberate wife-burnings.


The woman's husband, frequently aided by his mother or other relatives, seizes his wife, pours oil over her, and then sets it alight.


The motive is usually financial: she has not paid enough dowry, or her husband has simply got a better offer. And whether she dies, as her attackers intend, or survives to live out a lonely life of ghastly mutilation and perpetual pain, she will almost never blow their cover story: that the stove exploded and burned her.


Why not? Because, Shahnaz Bokhari, a clinical psychologist who founded the PWA 10 years ago, explains "the social system gives nothing to women. They leave them dumb from the day they are born." And even if the survivors knew how to complain, the police and the courts are unlikely to listen so long as the family who committed the crime stick to their story. The roots of the problem clearly lie in a culture that holds women to be inferior. Most Pakistani men, while implicitly accepting this belief, both subjugate and "protect" the women in their families, for they are not monsters. But for the tiny proportion of men who are capable of monstrous acts - and who may number in the hundreds of thousands in such a big population - the laws and customs of Pakistan are a murderers' charter.


Wife-burning has nothing to do with Islam, though Pakistan is overwhelmingly Moslem. It is equally prevalent in neighboring India, which is predominantly Hindu. This is about local customs, values and laws, and their unintended consequences in societies that, inevitably, include some individuals who are weak in both empathy and self-control.


Now bring it all back to the United States, where practically nobody burns their wives - even though there are greedy and ruthless Americans who are similarly capable of monstrous acts. Why not?


One reason is that women are now regarded in the West as independent individuals. They don't have dowries any more, which makes it less profitable for even the nastiest husband to burn his wife. Another reason is that he probably wouldn't get away with it: The police and the courts are not so thoroughly conditioned to overlook violence against women, and his victim, if she survived, would be unlikely to shield her attacker.


American society does a better job of protecting women - but it does a much worse job of thwarting people like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. U.S. police and courts take a much more relaxed view than those in Pakistan toward houses stuffed full of guns. Americans believe that freedom of speech is so important that even web sites peddling racist hate propaganda and telling you how to make terrorist bombs must be protected (which Pakistanis would regard as stark raving lunacy).


If you were really serious about ending wife-burning in Pakistan, you wouldn't wait generations for the whole society's attitude to women to change. You would immediately pass and enforce laws that required all cases where women were burned, scalded or splashed with acid in their own homes to be investigated by special prosecutors. And over the longer run you would try to suppress the custom of giving dowries that provides the motive for most of these crimes.


Similarly, if you were really serious about ending school massacres in America, you would not begin by trying to reform the family. You would immediately pass laws that make it very hard for private individuals to own guns at all. And over the long run you would work on ways of redefining free speech so that you could ban the kinds of films, video games and web sites that desensitize impressionable children to the point where horrific deeds like last Wednesday's massacre in Littleton can seem like fun.


If you were really serious about it.


Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.