Murder respects no gender. We may never know how many women died violently around the globe yesterday, but we will remember the name of one: Benazir Bhutto, twice prime minister of Pakistan, assassinated on Wednesday at the end of a political rally in Rawalpundi where she was campaigning to regain the prime minister’s office after years in exile.
Murder respects no religion. Bhutto was the first woman ever elected leader of a Muslim nation. Her obituaries remark on the paradoxes of her political career as a Muslim woman who accepted many of the traditional rituals of her faith while inflaming the more conservative factions with her outspoken pro-democracy politics and status as a populist leader who challenged dictators.
Murder is, sadly but no longer remarkably, a frightful risk of political life. History is replete with tales of intrigue, conspiracy and fanaticism leading to the violent murder of leaders from Julius Caesar to Abraham Lincoln to John Kennedy to Anwar Sadat and countless others. Benazir Bhutto is not the first woman political leader to be assassinated in south Asia; Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi was shot to death in 1984 by Sikh extremists while walking in her gardens.
Murder is the most malevolent political tool in the terrorist arsenal. Whoever proves responsible for the Bhutto murder (Al Qaeda is reportedly claiming responsibility), the intention is clear: to destabilize a critical nation with nuclear capacity, to undermine the efforts of the United States to solidify its alliance with the Pakistani government as part of the larger American strategy to combat the Al Qaeda terrorist organization. The Bush Administration had been trying to forge some kind of power-sharing arrangement between Benazir Bhutto and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, an effort that many analysts today criticize as unrealistic and naive about Pakistani politics.
With the U.S. presidential election season about to move to warp speed, the Bhutto assassination also reaches into the American political theatre with a new challenge for voters to assess the ability of candidates to manage the hugely complicated dimensions of diplomacy, intelligence and military affairs in the Middle East and South Asia regions. The next American president will inherit a monumental and dangerous mess in the world’s great tinderbox. We voters must set aside our more parochial interests in local and domestic agenda items to focus on what’s happening globally: the murder of Benazir Bhutto is a warning that difficult, perhaps even more terrifying days are yet to come.
The question now is not just who will lead Pakistan, important though that is, but perhaps more urgently, who will lead the United States? The crisis in Pakistan brings the stakes in this election into the sharpest focus yet. The opportunity to establish peace, or to expand war and terrorism through succeeding generations, is the definitive ballot question of the new year.