Benazir Bhutto

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(HOST) Recent events in Pakistan have reminded commentator Allen Gilbert of a classmate he had in college.

(GILBERT) "Can you tell me what medieval monasticism is?" the instructor asked.

The young woman shuffled her feet and looked down at her notes for a moment.

The instructor bore down. "You don’t KNOW what medieval monasticism is?" he asked.

The course was a western civilization history course, a college survey sweeping through 2,000 years of European history. I was in the course because I wanted to be a history major, and I hadn’t had much European history in high school.

But I wasn’t able to figure out why the young woman being grilled by the instructor was in the course. She was tall and thin, with long black hair. She was known as "Pinky," and she was from Pakistan.

Pinky struggled with the question about monasticism. She must know SOMETHING about monasticism, I thought. But then I realized, Why? Why should she know much of anything about this somewhat obscure topic that concerned countries foreign to her and a religion different from her own?

What must she think about so many courses that are foreign to her? I wondered.

Now, as Benazir Bhutto – Pinky – is in the political fight of her life, and her country, Pakistan, struggles to remain a democracy, I wonder what she’s thinking about our country and her time here.

Bhutto was here as a student in the late 60s and early 70s. She watched as our university, and others across the country, shut down in the spring of 1970. National Guardsmen had killed four students at Kent State University in Ohio, and students across the country went on strike. Two years later, she watched the Watergate scandal unfold, graduating as President Nixon schemed and lied and committed what Congress said were impeachable crimes.

The Kent State shootings showed that a government even in a country as free as ours could kill its own citizens. Watergate showed that in times of crisis, politicians — even in a constitutional democracy — have authoritarian tendencies that make them think that they’re above the law.

One hopes that someone from abroad who lives and studies in this country will come away with a sense of the strength of our country and its institutions. Is that what Bhutto left with, and retains?

And how does she view recent actions by our current President to suspend basic rights such as habeas corpus, and to allow torture during interrogations of detainees?

The lens through which Bhutto thinks about events in our country must be greatly sharpened by the events currently taking place in her own country — the suspension of her country’s constitution by President Musharaff, arrests of dissidents, and the delaying of elections.

As Benazir Bhutto herself deals with detention through sporadic house arrest, I wonder where she gets her faith that the rule of law will prevail in Pakistan. Let’s hope that during her time in our country, she came to agree with Lincoln’s belief that governments of, by, and for the people are the ones that endure. And let’s hope that belief is true — for countries such as Pakistan, as well as our own.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont.

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