Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Lady Vanishes

The true commitment to democracy of the current administration is now tested in the wake of the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Before she died, she accused the current government in Islamabad of failing to provide security for her campaign stops or to investigate a previous assassination attempt that had killed many bystanders.

When I was a student at Harvard, during her rise to political prominence, she was often discussed in the dining halls, where she had once been a student, as a symbol of hope for women around the world.

Sadly, much of the best coverage of the event today is coming from stock image bank services. This heart-rending first-person account in The New York Times came with a byline from Getty Images. I actually learned about the assassination from a Newscom e-mail hawking "a collection of lightboxes that we hope you find useful" that was compiled by their "editors and researchers" to illustrate this story about political murder. As the announcement explained, "Here you will find not only pictures of Ms. Bhutto, but intriguing images of her family, her history and the political environment in which she worked."

Perhaps I should be grateful to the stock photo banks. An image search on Google with Bhutto's name quickly brings Web surfers to a disputed image of Bhutto from her graduate school days at Oxford, which -- while she was living -- was used by her political opponents to dispute her public image as a good Muslim. Tabloid-style blog entries, such as "Why I Forwarded Benazir's Photo," moralize the smear tactics of her accuser, Muhammad Abd al-Hameed, who advertises himself as "a Muslim, a Pakistani and a media person, in that order." Her defenders on Flickr point out inconsistencies in the clothing choices of the reclining woman in a short skirt depicted and Bhutto's regular fashion choices and argue that what is being disseminated is a Photoshop forgery.

No matter what the sideshow, this killing is not acceptable. And even if the perpetrators were jihadist radicals, strongman tactics that glorify martial law, mass detentions, and the suspension of the rule of law must not be rewarded as a response. This is not what Bhutto would have wanted. Even if you don't wear the label of feminist, readers should notify their elected officials that female challengers cannot be murdered without consequences in nations to which we provide military, economic, and humanitarian aid, even if it is to the advantage of a strategic ally and a fellow nuclear power.

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