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A police officer stands guard May 8, 2011, at the gates of Abbottabad's central police station, where officials announced recently that foreign guests cannot stay in hotels without written permission and should remain off the streets at night. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)
A police officer stands guard May 8, 2011, at the gates of Abbottabad's central police station, where officials announced recently that foreign guests cannot stay in hotels without written permission and should remain off the streets at night. (Charla Jones for The Globe and Mail)

Republic of fables

Pakistan's reaction to Osama's killing shows it's a country of contradictions Add to ...

If investigations into Mr. bin Laden's death get sidetracked by the astonishing breadth of Pakistani suspicions, it would fit a historical pattern. The world's intelligence agencies have used this region as a chessboard for hundreds of years. The city of Abbottabad itself was founded in 1853 by a hero of the so-called Great Game, a British intelligence officer named Sir James Abbott who wore local clothes and attempted covert schemes to further the interests of the Empire. His missions weren't always flawless - a reconnaissance trip into the mountains cost him two fingers, sliced off by a brigand's sword - but the intelligence collected by agents like Mr. Abbott helped to maintain the uneasy fringes of British and Russian influence. It's not all that different from what the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency does today.

Those who inhabited these rough lands were rarely principal actors in whatever schemes played out on their territory, and generations of bitter experience taught them to be wary of foreign powers.

Even the birth of Pakistan remains a subject of active conspiracy talk: To this day, local newspapers continue to report new revelations about the behind-the-scenes politicking of the commissions that partitioned India in 1947. Many people in Pakistan feel that their country was shortchanged in those backroom talks. The legacy of partition has been three wars, a nuclear standoff and a lingering nervousness about Indian aggression that continues to dominate all conversations about national security in Islamabad.

At some point in the following half-century, Pakistani skepticism about world affairs turned into corrosive cynicism. Now, all major events get filtered through the lens of double games and triple bluffs; taking developments at face value is widely seen as unfashionably naive.

Movie shops prominently display pirated copies of crude 9/11 conspiracy films, and many people here prefer to believe that the attacks on the Twin Towers were a scheme hatched by Zionists, or the CIA, to give America a pretext for war in their region. Such conclusions fit comfortably into Pakistan's idea of itself as a nation under siege.

THE COMFORT OF RITUAL

Conspiracy theories can also soften hard truths about domestic affairs, allowing the country to avoid moments of badly needed public reckoning. When the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by a member of his own security team this year, apparently because he wanted to repeal a harsh blasphemy law, the incident could have provided a moment for serious debate about religious extremism. Instead, President Asif Ali Zardari gave speeches suggesting that the attack was the result of a grand plot by his opponents.

The same thing happened after a cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was assassinated in March. A popular newspaper, Jang, ran a front-page headline calling the killing a "heinous conspiracy against Pakistan" and claiming that the incident was somehow a result of American counterterrorism efforts. By interpreting the slaying as an insult against the nation, commentators avoided discussing Pakistan's chronic problem with radical groups such as the Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for Mr. Bhatti's death.

The conspiracy reflex kicked in hours after Osama bin Laden's death. A security official visited The Globe and Mail's hotel room in Quetta, Pakistan, and apologetically explained that the streets had become too dangerous for foreign journalists because of protests against the U.S. raid.

Some locals apparently believed the reports of Mr. bin Laden's death, the official said, rolling his eyes with the genteel condescension that Pakistani authorities often reserve for the uneducated masses. "We will never really know what happened," he said, sipping green tea.

A few commentators in the English-speaking press appeared so familiar with this routine that they poked fun at the ritual.

"Tell me lies. Sweet little lies," Sana Bucha, an anchor for GEO News, wrote in an opinion column. "I want to be lied to. Again. Because the lies only infuriated me. This 'truth' - half-baked or completely raw - is scary."

As Ms. Bucha foreshadowed, the local media soon filled with a kaleidoscope of rumour. Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg, former chief of Pakistan's military, was quoted on the front pages of Urdu-language newspapers speculating that Mr. bin Laden died a decade ago, of natural causes, and the Americans had instead killed someone who resembled him.

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