On March 17, 2002, the day after my 16th birthday, my entire family huddled around our television set, dumbstruck with grief. The scene being described on the news that evening had become a horribly familiar one over the past few years. A church had been attacked in a Third World country. Five people were killed. The attack was presumed to be the work of radical Muslims, angry at the degradation of the Islamic world by Western influence. It was a story we had all heard before and, sadly, one we were sure to hear again before long. After the pain of 9/11, I had become almost desensitized to all the killing. It was too torturous to try to realize it in full.
But that day, as the camera zoomed in on the Protestant International Church of Islamabad, Pakistan, tears streamed down my face. The camera zoomed up the stairs, past broken windows and scorched wall hangings to the main hall, where blood stained the overturned chairs.
My heart all but stopped as I realized that I had sat in those same chairs every Sunday for the 4 years I lived in Islamabad. As the anchorman stated again that five people had died, I thought to myself in anguish--that could have been me. I remembered everything afresh as the camera panned out to the foyer, where teacups were still stacked neatly, awaiting the congregation. I remembered the joy in my 10-year-old heart as I had poured cups of tea for my best friend and myself. I remembered our happiness at being able to sit on the stairs outside the church, drinking tea in the warm sunlight.
As the camera exited the church via the back stairs, I had to turn away. Blood covered the stairs on which my friends and I had played happy games of tag. I tasted vomit as I left the room, searching my soul for a reason. Why, God? Why? I cried out, but I could find no answer.
We found out later that night that one of the people killed was a 17-year-old senior at my old high school. Her mother, sitting next to her, also was killed. Why wasn't that my mother and me? I couldn't help but wonder.
In the weeks that followed the attack I did not find an answer. I struggled with intense feelings of anger and confusion. I didn't understand. How could such a thing have happened in my cozy, insulated little world? In my 4 years in Islamabad, I had never felt the presence of such hatred as was unleashed that day. Of all the places I have lived it stands out as the most serene. My daily life there was quiet. Almost all of my experiences with the local Pakistanis were friendly and warm. I was never the brunt of such anger. I spent several weeks in a state of stunned disbelief. Neither my life in Pakistan nor my interaction with Pakistanis matched up with what had happened on that day. I simply could not comprehend the level of hatred that could drive any person to rip five other people from existence.
Most teenagers do not find themselves having to cope with terrorist attacks on their former church. The months that followed were difficult for me. The upheaval of my well-ordered world was never far from my mind during that time. Certain images flashed constantly across my mind. I kept seeing those stairs, which had once held such happy memories, and were now stained with blood. Ever present was the uneasy feeling that I was hated simply for being an American and a Christian. Living in Egypt, I had to face Muslims every day in the streets and at my school, always with the haunting remembrance that it had been Muslims who had attacked my church. This suggestion left me struggling with anger. Part of me wanted these people to feel the kind of pain I was feeling. A larger part of me was simply bitter toward those who had snatched away the idyllic world in which I believed. I felt even more confused at my own conflict. How could I be angry at these people whom I loved? How many times had I argued in defense of Muslims in the post- September 11th onslaught of racism? In time, my own inner conflict resolved itself as I chose to heed the advice I had given so many of my American friends: Just because one Muslim is a radical terrorist doesn't mean the entire population of the Islamic world is plotting the destruction of America.
In time I was able to face the ridiculousness of this idea for myself. I had no right to be angry with my Muslim friends and neighbors because one of their numbers had inflicted pain upon me. I also recalled something my mother had taught me in my childhood when we were studying Ghandi together: "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." I recognized the truth in this statement. If each person sought revenge on everyone who had injured him, the world would be a wreckage of broken hopes. If we cannot forgive one another, all is lost.
With time, I was able to forgive the people who had taken so much away from me. I was left with a feeling of pure regret that two cultures could not coexist peacefully. I also was left with the realization that the most important thing we can do as citizens of this world is to avoid apathy. I believe that we must always be shocked and outraged by any kind of violence. Today one must struggle to remain sensitive: in a world where terrorism ravishes again and again and the media makes sport of killing, I believe that we must continue to see the human side to every story. As I watched the camera zoom in between the rows of chairs where I had sat every Sunday, I looked beyond the numbers. I saw more than the headline "5 Killed in Terrorist Attack". On March 17, 2002, I saw the reality of the situation. Lives cannot be reduced to black ink on white paper. We must continue to see each horrible situation with fresh eyes, as exhausting as that may be. Apathy is the worst sin. To become desensitized is to lose sight of reality. And to refuse to forgive is to blind the world.