Day 815: Warriors Of Virtue

originally published March 25, 2014

While the bulk of our news sources have us scouring the globe for a missing plane, watching for the next drunken act of buffoonery by Toronto’s mayor or collectively pretending that Kim & Kanye’s pampered offspring has any relevance to anything, the mainstream western media has skipped a few stories. Perhaps not ‘skipped’, but ‘demoted’ beneath the whodunit-appeal of the Malaysian aircraft and the partisan theatrics in local and national politics. For example, did you know that 89% of the population of Veneto, the Italian province which includes the seductive city of Venice, voted to secede from Italy last week?

I will begrudgingly admit that my own ignorance is self-imposed. I plow through news-hungry waves, gobbling up current events stories like they were crab legs and bacon strips at the MGM Grand buffet. Then, once I find myself teetering upon the brink of abandoning all hope for humanity, I stop. I insulate myself with escapist entertainment and blissfully allow the world to shimmy and quiver on its own, on the other side of my heavy black curtains.

This is how I missed the extraordinary tale of Aitzaz Hasan. Here’s a kid who, at the age of fourteen years old exhibited a greater demonstration of pure cajones than everyone I knew at fourteen combined. It sickens me (with a slightly hypocritical acceptance of my own cross-cultural ignorance) that so many people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to watch an unrepentant douche like Justin Bieber in concert, yet they miss out completely when someone like Aitzaz makes the news.

Aitzaz Hasan was in the ninth grade, fifteen years old. He was a good student, perpetually busy and with no shortage of friends. His home was the Hangu District in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan, where a number of Shiites live, and where the local government has come under fire for attempting to negotiate peacefully with Taliban militants. One such militant, a fetid splotch of sub-human filth who had aligned himself with the extremist Sunni group known as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, crossed paths with Aitzaz on the morning of January 6, 2014.

(Perhaps this is what sours me on reading the news – most news sources will refrain from referring to people like this as ‘sub-human filth’, even when it applies.)

There are two stories as to how this went down. Either Aitzaz was outside the school gates with his friends, being punished for tardiness, or else the group of them were hurrying to get to the school before morning assembly. Either way, the stranger – dressed in the same Government High School uniform as Aitzaz and his friends wore – asked for directions. Aitzaz was suspicious, and while his friends bolted for safety after spotting the detonator beneath the guy’s shirt, Aitzaz tackled him. That’s when the suicide bomber’s vest detonated.

The bomber had been looking to take out as many of the 1000+ students at the school as he could. It was to be a violent attack against the nation, a devastating, 9/11-esque assertion of fanatical religious bullshit. Instead we’re left with the story of one teenager who sacrificed himself in order to save his friends and to kick the specter of terrorism squarely in the nads. Aitzaz’s story made the news here, but unless you were paying attention on January 10 (that’s when the story appeared on both the CBC and in The New York Times), you’d have missed it.

Locals – and here I mean bloggers, Tweeters and journalists all over Pakistan, urged the government to honor Aitzaz and his magnificent display of tragic martyrdom. Two days ago, on Pakistan’s national day, Aitzaz’s family was handed the Sitara-e-Shujaat, the Star of Bravery. I checked – nothing in the western news about that.

Perhaps there’s comfort to be found in the more widely recognized story of Malala Yousafzai.

Since she was old enough to speak, Malala Yousafzai was a voice of reason. Raised in the Swat Valley, a region in northwestern Pakistan that has been under consistent pressure from Taliban forces for years now, Malala was tapped by the BBC to anonymously blog about her situation there. The news organization wanted an ongoing narrative from the perspective of a local girl, just as the opportunities for girls and women were being snuffed out by Taliban authority. Shortly thereafter, in January of 2009, girls were prohibited from attending local schools. More than a hundred girls’ schools had already been blown to rubble. By the following summer, Malala was a refugee.

Malala was reunited with her family in September, but by then she was cemented to the notion of being a voice for her cause. At 12 years old she was speaking to the Toronto Star and appearing on Capital Talk. Her BBC blogging identity was revealed, and she was fast becoming a celebrity. Desmond Tutu nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and two months later she won Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. It’s almost surprising how long it took for her enemies to take a shot at her.

A Taliban gunman boarded a bus in October of 2009, demanding to know which girl was Malala. Upon identifying the fifteen-year-old, he shot her with a single bullet that crossed through her head and neck, right into her shoulder.

Such is the character of the Taliban, a group so dark of soul and ensconced in insecurity they had to shoot a 15-year-old girl, simply because she disagreed with them. Fortunately, these terrorists are as inept as they are misguided, and Malala Yousafzai made a full recovery from her wounds. Her established public profile as a voice for the oppressed meant that Malala’s story would become page-one news all over the world. Pakistani officials offered a substantial reward for information about the assailant, and just about every major western political leader expressed disgust at the shooting.

Malala’s shooting even attracted celebrity responses, which meant even more penetration through the thick veil of noise that makes up our news cycle. Madonna dedicated a performance to Malala, and Angelina Jolie donated $200,000 to the Malala Fund for girls’ education. Laura Bush wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that compared her to Anne Frank. Finally, a Nazi comparison that doesn’t invoke the requisite eye-rolls.

23-year-old Atta Ullah Khan, a grad student in chemistry, was identified as the shooting suspect. He remains at large. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, who had visited Malala in hospital, began pushing a petition to the United Nations to demand that all discrimination against girls world-wide comes to an end, and that all children in Pakistan are given the right to attend school. Malala has not retired or allowed the violence perpetuated against her to dissuade her in the least from her cause. In the year and a half since the attack she has met with Queen Elizabeth II, spoken at Harvard, and met with President Obama and his family. She wasn’t there for a photo op either – she confronted the president on his use of drone attacks in Pakistan, which are killing innocent victims and doing nothing to help the education crisis.

I read stories like Malala’s and Aitzaz’s and feel a twinge of hope amid a cacophonous cavalcade of desperation and bad news. There are genuine heroes in the world, and the terrorists’ misguided tactics have yet to notch a single genuine victory for them. These heroic children are a refreshing counterbalance to the scores of backwards policies, unfocussed media and outright evil that permeates the news. It almost makes me want to pull my head out of the sand and become a little more informed. Hopefully, that feeling lasts.

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