“When we consider the founders of our nation – Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others – we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility… They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future – not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
Where are they?”
—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, “Real Patriots Ask Questions”, p.428.
That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world’s Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there’s less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?
I don’t have the answer to this question, but it’s hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:
…Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.
The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer’s murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:
Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me…Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”
Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer’s murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.
It’s tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, “Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” But giving up and turning one’s back on the world has never worked, and it won’t work here. For one thing, there’s still the question of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition – and, in any case, we’re seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can’t afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.
But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they’re so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it’s words like these from Taseer’s son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn’t been silenced. For humanity’s sake, for the sake of all we’ve accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he’s right.