Negotiations between the US and Pakistan over the fate of Raymond Davis appear to be approaching a new phase as Pakistan’s media reports that the country’s Foreign Ministry has affirmed the American’s diplomatic status. But recognition of Raymond Davis’s diplomatic status will not be sufficient to resolving the larger issue: American recognition of Pakistan’s dignity. To understand this issue, we might look to another chapter in America’s recent history: Rodney King.
When LA police brutally beat Rodney King following a traffic stop in 1991, the initial response from law enforcement was that the officers involved were justified in their use of force because they had reason to believe that Rodney King was not only resisting arrest, but presenting an imminent threat to their own safety. A year later, a jury in Los Angeles agreed. But that was hardly the end of the Rodney King saga.
Upon acquittal of the police officers, Los Angeles erupted in violence. Fifty-three people died, over two-thousand were injured, and the city suffered financial loss of almost $1 billion. The US military was eventually called in to restore order. To many Americans, the question should have been resolved by the official trial and acquittal of the officers. This perception ignored the underlying issue of dignity in the African-American community of Los Angeles.
The LA riots of 1992 were about more than simply one incident of police brutality – they were a manifestation of the anger and frustration of a community that felt it was being denied basic human dignity, that white police officers could attack, humiliate, and even kill African-Americans with impunity.
It was not until after the 1992 riots that the Department of Justice held investigations that resulted in the indictment of the officers for federal civil rights violations. The federal trial examined not simply the isolated incident of Rodney King’s beating, but the larger context of power and police culture in which the incident took place.
Like the asymmetry of power between Los Angeles’s African-American community and the largely white law enforcement and criminal justice system that policed it, US-Pakistan relations are plagued with a perception that the US imposes its will upon a Pakistan that is unable to adequately represent and defend its own interests. Some of this perceived asymmetry may be based in myths created for political convenience, but much of it is very real.
The US has immense leverage in Islamabad in the forms of massive military and civilian aid, access to US visas for Pakistani nationals, and the ability to authenticate Pakistan’s importance in the greater world community.
Pakistan, however, has significantly less leverage in Washington. Despite Pakistan’s geo-strategic position in relation to Afghanistan, Pakistan offers little in the way of economic opportunity. Even the country’s strategic usefulness may be overstated. Recent statements by Gen. David Rodriguez suggest that the country’s assistance in securing Afghanistan may not be necessary.
A good example of the results of this asymmetry is public reaction to the drone program. Long known to be operated in close cooperation and with the full knowledge of Pakistan’s military, complaints of the program infringing on Pakistan’s sovereignty continue. But these complaints are based less in the US violating Pakistan’s sovereignty qua sovereignty than they are in the humiliation resulting from American unwillingness to share control of the drones with Pakistan so that the program can be operated by the country’s own military.
No Justice, No Peace
Many Pakistanis assume that if Raymond Davis is returned to US custody, he will walk away “scot-free.” From this perspective, “diplomatic immunity” is equated with a “license to kill.” A prominent Pakistani author even compared American attitudes towards Pakistan as that of hunters to a game preserve.
While US law does provide for cases of justifiable homicide, such cases do require an investigation and court hearing. Spy novels notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a license to kill. But this has not been fully communicated to the Pakistani people. Despite Raymond Davis’s shooting taking place over three weeks ago, yesterday was the first time a representative of the US government publicly assured Pakistanis that Raymond Davis would face a full criminal investigation.
“It is customary in an incident like this for our government to conduct a criminal investigation. That is our law. And I can give you the full assurance of our government today that that will take place,” Kerry told reporters in the eastern city of Lahore. “So there is no such thing as a suggestion that something is out of law or that America thinks somehow we’re not subject to the law.”
This is a crucial part of the conversation that has been missing from the US’s public response to the crisis – an assurance that justice will be served. This assurance must be reiterated, and the promise must be kept. If justice is not forthcoming, Islamist parties will continue to exploit Pakistanis frustrations and channel their anger into deeper anti-Americanism. Without bridging this ‘dignity gap,’ the US and Pakistan will never be able to move beyond a dysfunctional transactional relationship.
From Jamaat-i-Islami led street demonstrations to Taliban threats against the Pakistani government, anti-democratic groups are using Raymond Davis as an opportunity to promise respect for Pakistani dignity. But dignity is a promise at odds with their political aims. The US needs to approach this crisis not only through through the lens of law and order, but through the lens of dignity and respect for the people of Pakistan. An opportunity exists to redefine the essence of the US-Pakistan relationship. Let’s not let that opportunity go to waste.