It’s Surprisingly Easy to Get Used to Violence

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My wife and I moved to Lahore, Pakistan in August of 2008 to teach at the American school there. We brought our two kids — aged 8 and 12 at the time. People called us crazy, doing something like that, and later we would wonder if we were, but when we accepted the jobs it seemed reasonable enough.

When we’d signed our contracts, in January, Pakistan seemed on the mend. The ruling military government, established a decade earlier in a coup, was returning the country to Democracy and elections were scheduled for the spring. Benazir Bhutto, who’d already served once as Prime Minister, was returning from exile in London to run and it looked as if she would win. Relations with India were thawing. The Taliban was active, as always, but mostly in the untamed border Provinces with Afghanistan. A robust American military presence — the product of Pakistan’s transportation corridor from the Indian Ocean to Afghanistan — had flooded the country (once again) with American dollars and infrastructure. Economic growth neared 8%.

We got the jobs at an international schools career fair in January of 2008, in New York. It’s the nature of these things that you accept positions at the fair and sign contracts a day or two later. As soon as we got back to Florida I gave notice at the high school I taught. We told all our friends, and started selling everything we owned.

About a month after the job fair, in March, things fell apart in Lahore. In the whole country of Pakistan, actually, though in retrospect it became clear that not much was holding it together.

Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning, and suicide bombers started blowing themselves up all over the country, mostly targeting local police. We received emails from the school assuring us that the news was worse than the reality. Having lived overseas as a kid, I knew this to be true. Few places are ever as bad as the media portrays them in the moment of crisis. It’s easy to forget that in a city of 10 million people, a bombing in a market can be very far away indeed. Besides, we’d signed our contracts and given notice at our old jobs. Half the furniture was already sold and renters were lined up to move into our house in July.

We read the news carefully, looking for glimpses of the truth behind the gory details. We traded emails with the school and teachers already there. These were local acts of violence, isolated, and not targeting westerners. Where we would live and work were safe. All was the same as it had ever been at the school.

There were a few more incidents, but Lahore seemed to calm a bit, and so did we. A bit.

We all want familiarity, even — maybe especially — in the most foreign of places. We seek it out and almost always find it. When we know someone or something, we can ease our troubled worry. We can comfort ourselves with the sentence, ‘That’s not what it’s REALLY like.’

I was already somewhat familiar with Pakistan, having spent my middle school years in Islamabad in the late 1970’s. I grew up internationally — my father worked for the US State Department — which was a significant motivation for wanting to move overseas in the first place. (My wife and I had the intent for years, but things like careers and children and buying a house got in the way.)

So even though the Pakistan we saw in the news was seething and dangerous, I knew it from different days, when it was relatively calm and welcome, a country of the devoutly religious, of regal Mughal architecture and proud people. Pakistan, the familiar Pakistan, to me, was the masterful artisanry of Persian carpets and etched brass and delicious food.

Of course, we were literally half a world away from the violence at first, but we were heading towards it eventually

A place is never just one thing, even if that one thing looms largest for the moment over all else. A place is millions of discrete components. We acclimate to violence by ignoring it, by focussing on its opposite, relegating its sharp cry to the rare, isolated, unnatural and unwanted corner it belongs.

This was actually harder to do from a distance. We approached the violence of Pakistan with anxiety, but once we arrived it was easy to push it to the realm of the unnatural.

We were accustomed to the violence of Pakistan within moments of arrival, really. Our house — along with most of the other houses of the wealthy or foreign — was in the Military Cantonment part of town, which was, essentially, one huge, walled, gated and guarded community. We went past at least five military checkpoints on the way from the airport to our new home that first day. By the end of the week, we were waving cheerfully to the soldiers on the way to school. By the end of the month we were giving the houseguards extra cash for their service.

In many ways we also arrived to circumstances already accustomed to violence. Since the country’s western and wealthier establishments had been attacked just after 9/11, security was already tight at such places. Barricades, armed guards, metal detectors at entrances. These measures had been noteworthy for, oh, all of about five minutes when we first arrived. For one, they were a welcome comfort against the threat and anxiety. For another, after a while a person gets used to just about anything that isn’t too inconvenient. When’s the last time you truly grumbled about the metal detector at the airport?

The first time we went to a McDonald’s in Lahore, we were intrigued that a guard outside used a mirror to check for explosives underneath the car. (Yes, they have McDonald’s in Lahore, Pakistan. Also Domino’s Pizza and KFC.) The third time we went to McDonald’s (our kids were particularly eager for tastes of home for a year or so), the security barely registered.

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We’d been in the country a few weeks and were already well-acclimated to our good lives there, when the first significant attack came — a huge suicide bomb at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. We were in a restaurant at the time, with friends we’d made, at an extremely fancy hotel, The Avari. It was Eid, the Muslim month-long fasting event (nothing touches the lips from sunup to sundown), so every evening’s meal was festive and sumptuous. Midway through the buffet, phones started ringing as news of the bombing spread. Since these events were sometimes co-ordinated across the country, everyone immediately began leaving the hotel, a quiet and calm exodus home. We paid the check while scanning our phones for news and, for that evening at least, held our anxiety close enough to change our actions.

We stopped going out for a while, but settled back into routine soon enough. There were just more checkpoints and barriers to get through on the way.

You don’t realize you are growing accustomed. How can you? In the moment, the fear, the horror, the outrage, is painfully real.

But each ‘big event’ numbs you, hardens you to the smaller moments that might previously have excited outrage. After the Marriott Hotel bombing (a garbage truck fully loaded with explosives killed 54) there were smaller events almost daily. Two dead here, four there. A market, a movie theatre, a police station, another market, a park. But these were nothing compared to that horror, that explosion heard 30 miles away, a crater 20 feet deep, the entire hotel in flames, Westerners killed.

Denial and Acceptance are much closer to each other than one might expect. So close, at times, that they are the same. If we wrapped ourselves in a blanket of denial that the violence was not a personal threat, it was a blanket heavily threaded with the various ways that the violence genuinely wasn’t a threat. Everyone we knew in Pakistan was warm and friendly. Nobody, not even the teachers who’d been there for decades, had ever experienced anything personal. The city was heavily guarded, which had the effect of virtually eliminating all but the pettiest of crime.

You close your mind with statistic, too. You ask yourself, again and again, what are the chances? It’s a comfort knowing the chances are slight.

The second ‘big’ attack was closer to home, a coordinated assault on the bus of a visiting cricket team just a few miles from the school. This happened around 10 am at the Liberty Market traffic circle, just outside Gaddafi Stadium. (Yes, that Gaddafi had paid for a very nice stadium some decades earlier, when he had oil money and Western approval.) We could hear the grenades from inside our classrooms, distant sharp booms and sometimes the crackle of gunfire. We didn’t know that’s what it was at the time — the noise could have been anything at that distance. A military exercise. Some kind of fire. Celebration. The city was filled with loud bangs and pops — a lot of the cars backfired there, it seemed. Only in retrospect did we think back, ‘Oh, that’s what that was!’

We avoided the Liberty Market traffic circle for a few days after the attack, but the International Club was on that route, and it was the only reasonable place in the city to get alcohol and hang out with other expats, so, you know…

Besides, that was a visiting cricket team, not us.

That’s the thing you tell yourself most. Not us.

A police station bombing? (That one was less than a mile away, an unmistakable BOOM! that shook the windows hard and threw a striking mushroom cloud up into the blue afternoon sky.) Local police. Not us.

A market we occasionally passed by? Local market. Didn’t shop there. Not us.

A movie theatre in the military garrison? Showing a Bollywood movie. Not us.

For a long time, the most natural ‘not us’ concerned children, because children were not targeted and we taught children. In the wild Provinces along the Afghanistan border, the Taliban frequently bombed schools, but always at night, an attack on the building, not the students, because: 1. It was government run and taught girls or secular subjects or neglected the Prophet, and 2. The army or police used the buildings in the evenings as garrisons.

Children died in bombings — at markets and on buses and such — but infrequently and as ‘innocents’, taken up by Allah in the Holy Cause. They weren’t targeted.

Until they were.

In our second year, the Taliban and others began bombing schools during the day and in the cities, something they had not done before. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the cafeteria at a University in Islamabad, and the Taliban announced that they would be attacking education. In response, the government shut all the nation’s schools for two weeks, but it was an untenable situation. You can’t just shut down schools; might as well abandon society altogether. We reopened, and nothing happened.

Still, we armed ourselves. Or rather, we armed even more of those around us who we could arm. The school already had guards — several different kinds, actually. First were the guards we hired ourselves, several dozen men who patrolled the school grounds, manned the entry points, directed traffic. (We had a similar permanent guard at each of our homes, 2 men working 12-hour shifts 7 days a week.) Sometimes these men were retired soldiers, but most often they were relatives of other people who worked at the school, the brother of a groundskeeper or driver, the cousin of a cafeteria cook. Some carried a gun, but it was rumored they had no bullets. Second, outside the school, the local police had set up shop. We were, after all, the only ‘American’ school in the city, and even though it had been there since the 1960’s, America was still the target of frequent marches, not to mention actual terrorists. Third, since the army also had a significant presence in the city, they too stationed a few soldiers outside the school. And finally, most of our students, the children of the wealthy, had their own armed guards who followed them around, usually in some kind of chase vehicle (they were not allowed inside).

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In the wake of the new threats, the school’s parents and administration pooled resources and hired yet another private security firm, this one with highly trained and experienced anti-terrorist commandos. They stationed themselves inside the school’s entrance-ways with machine guns and extra clips, big men in black fatigues and heavy boots. Within days, we barely noticed they were there (though it was occasionally a bit disconcerting to turn a corner and face the barrel of a gun while at work).

We also stepped up our evacuation practices and added new siren sounds to account for different possible catastrophes — a single shooter, an imminent attack, a fire, an earthquake, a bomb. We even knocked a hole in the school’s back wall for a secret escape route and arranged with the owners of a house nearby to provide safe haven should it be necessary.

This reflected another way we accommodate the reality of violence: To treat it as a natural — and therefore random — and therefore inescapable — event. We do this with nature’s potential catastrophe all the time, of course. If one lives in an earthquake zone (and to add insult to potential injury, Lahore was on the edge of one), we build stronger buildings, and maybe avoid storing fragile dishes in ways that might easily topple, but there’s fundamentally a ‘what can you do about it?’ fatalism to the possibility.

You confront violence with humor, too. Dark, grim humor.

A suicide bomber generally wraps his chest in explosives and small projectiles like nails and glass. (Those that don’t include the shrapnel often do surprisingly light damage.) One aspect to the horror is that the bomber’s head is launched into the air relatively unharmed and some distance from the nightmare scene. Initial news reports always had authorities searching for the bomber’s head for identification, which sometimes took days.

Humor disarms the horror and de-escalates the fear. We promised ourselves, ‘Well, when the head lands in OUR yard, we’ll know it’s time to leave.’ Humor softens the insanity. When the head really did land in the yard of the friend of another teacher, a local hire who lived in a less policed part of town, we said, well aware of how crazy it sounded to so easily dismiss the promise, ‘Bah! That’s a local hire. Not us.’

I look back on it now and it appears insane, of course, that we went there with small children and then stayed through it all. But you do. You adjust. You rationalize. You acclimate and accustom. You live your life and settle into routine and look back and actually, all in all, it was a wonderful time, because the violence didn’t ever happen to you.

Someone looking back on America in this moment would think the same thing. Twenty-five children murdered? Five hundred concertgoers shot in Vegas? A nightclub? High schools? Churches?!

And those are the big ones. We no longer note the smaller acts of violence.

In so many ways, our journey into accommodating violence and threat in Pakistan mirrors America today. We focus on the familiar, not the horror. We tell ourselves we cannot change what is. We simultaneously pretend we are safe by small actions — steering clear of possible danger, remaining vigilant, buying a gun — and yet allow that we cannot possibly be safe because the violence is out of our control entirely, an act of nature as inescapable and random as an earthquake or heart attack.

You get used to it.

You really do.

just another frustrated teacher

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