Shattered dreams

May 14, 2010

I apologise in advance for adding to the overload of stories about our latest jihadi, Faisal Shahzad. I have no special insight into his motives and actions but just a conjectural hypothesis. It is said that he is well-educated but was no whiz kid. His job as a financial analyst in a small, nondescript company was obviously a low-paying one. You cannot survive in America on $50,000 a year, especially if you are married with two children.

He was certainly in pursuit of the American Dream. His wife was a Pakistani-born US citizen from Colorado, which would have made him eligible for US citizenship after three years. He bought a house with a mortgage which seemed too high relative to his income, but at the time one could get a mortgage with minimal or no verification of one’s income. Around the time when the housing bubble was going to pop, he tried to sell his house but failed. He probably went into negative equity when house prices collapsed, as happened to millions of other Americans. The great American Dream was turning into a slow, unfolding nightmare.

I think he became bitter, resentful and, most dangerously, angry. Falling behind on your financial obligations in the US can be frightening. Your credit rating is affected and no one will lend you any money because you are judged to be “high risk”. He may have fallen behind on paying his taxes which is taken very seriously. Collection agencies will come after you with the proverbial midnight knock on the door if you fail to answer their letters of warning. At this point he may have found the message of radicalism, filled with hatred for America, a seductive one. He was vulnerable. His resentment and anger were easily manipulated. He sent his family off to the safety of Saudi Arabia and decided to avenge the system that he felt betrayed him. And what better place to make a statement than the heart of America —Times Square, always guaranteed to be teeming with people.

Shahzad should have reached out for help. There are institutions in the US where people will help those who have been felled by bad economic times for no fault of their own. There are safety nets. He could have spoken to his bank and restructured his mortgage. All he needed was Google. But maybe he was too proud to ask for help and too embarrassed to admit to failure especially because his parents must have spent so much on educating him.

The fact that he is in custody makes millions of American Muslims feel a little less nervous about a violent blowback. If he is guilty, and he seems to have admitted that, then he will be given a lawyer at no cost and justice will be done. Or will be seen to have been done. If he had fled the country successfully and ended up in Waziristan there would have been vitriolic headlines between America and Pakistan. They would have asked for his immediate extradition and we would have said there was no evidence against him and it was all a conspiracy against Pakistan and Muslims.

Let me conclude by saying that having read almost everything in this esteemed paper on Shahzad, with a few exceptions, our people show a remarkable degree of balance, restraint and maturity over this forgettable episode. I applaud them.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 15th, 2010.