Posted by: Titus Presler | December 17, 2012

“The voice of bullet fire”: Juxtapositions of violence in Peshawar and Connecticut

Two days ago, on Saturday, a student at Edwardes College in Peshawar wrote me the following note on Facebook

hello sir

recently there were 3 blasts near Peshawar airport

By “recently” he meant in the past minutes, so I responded from our home in Vermont, where I’m back for Christmas: “Sorry to hear that.  Please share more details.”  He went on:


sir n now we were hearing the voice of bullet fire

airport has been sealed all the flights are cancelled

and security forces have sealed the area

and i was so sorry to hear that incident at the school

the children were shot dead that was so horrible

There he was, listening to the “voice” of bullets and doubtless wondering what the evident skirmish at the airport portended for violence-drenched Peshawar and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  At the same time, this student, who happens to be a Christian, was taking time out to express concern about Friday’s carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 first-graders and six adults were gunned down at a school, plus the gunman’s mother and himself.

One kind of horror at home.  Another kind of horror abroad – abroad for him meaning Connecticut.  The horror at home did not exhaust the capacity for empathy for horror abroad.

The student was not suffering from compassion fatigue.  He was reaching out from suffering to suffering.  It reminded me of Paul’s early words in his second letter to the Corinthians:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  (2 Corinthians 1.3-4)

The College’s Muslim finance director wrote to me yesterday:

Connecticut incident is one of the sad incidents this year.  May God bless families of innocent kids and teachers died at The Sandy Hook School with patience and courage to bear the loss.

Not all violence is equal.  The point is obvious, but it bears repeating.  In Peshawar we are used to skirmishes and bombings, for the northwest frontier region is in the grip of an insurgency.  (Fifteen were killed in Saturday’s bombing and gun battles at the airport, but flights resumed on Sunday.)  Some of the results are similar to those in Newtown.  Last year the Taliban bombed a school bus of children to punish a village that was opposing them.  They have bombed hundreds of schools in the region, often focusing on girls’ schools, though generally at night when the schools are empty.  These acts are despicable.  Since 9/11 about 35,000 civilians and 5,000 police and military personnel have died in the violence.  The conflict is complex, and no one claims to understand it completely, but its religious, cultural and political outlines are well known.  People have a sense of what is going on and try to the best of their ability – which varies a great deal depending on socio-economic status – to be on guard against the clear dangers and live as safely as possible.

A gunman walking into an elementary school and “out of the blue” killing children and teachers is a horror of a different order.  No environment of civil disorder or armed insurgency.  No warning of danger.  No apparent reason thus far except our amateur psychologizing of whatever his personal resentments or mental disorders might have been.  It is a bolt from the blue, but it’s a human bolt from the blue, just as unpredictable and just as impossible to protect against.

An insurgency is fought one way, and Pakistan is trying to do that both militarily and at the level of civil society and public dialogue.  One of our roles at Edwardes is to provide experience of an interfaith community where the range of human knowledge is addressed with open discourse and personal character is matured in ways that prevent the radicalization that leads to violence.

The USA’s “out of the blue” mass shootings are a different problem that needs particular approaches.  Cultural change and legislative action are imperative.  Medicine and pharmacology may have a role in addressing the distorting effects of  excessive drug prescriptions.  President Obama’s address last night in Newtown was pitch-perfect in contrasting a culture of death with a culture of life, in highlighting the protection of children as a nation’s first responsibility, and in stating that the difficulty of finding and passing the right legislation cannot be an excuse for inaction – and he did all this in the midst of a deeply pastoral response to the families and their community.

Ours is a violent world, as the world has always been.  The violence is not monochrome.  It comes in an infinite variety of shades whether in Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Aurora or Newtown.  It’s irresponsible to simply shield our eyes and despair at what seems a wash of violence everywhere.  We must rather analyze each paroxysm, whether sudden or prolonged, and calibrate our responses.

“Let the little children come to me,” Obama quoted Jesus last night.  Yes.


  1. USA-style navel-gazing, “amateur psychologizing” as you put it, leaves me so dry, and yet of course there is still the thirst for analysis. Your international perspective is a spring in the desert. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Ann, I’m glad the posting speaks. As you know, it’s the phenomenon of difference that for me is the heart and catalyst for the theology and practice of mission. The international perspective, as you put it, is of course the perspective of difference – different ethnicities, languages, cultures, nationalities, religions. It’s the particularity of each of us and of each of our cultures that discloses the particular gifts each individual and each culture has, but particularity limits as well as discloses. It’s the embrace of the other particularities in other societies and cultures that provides the insight we need on our own. So when something like that email sloshes in over the transom with such a distillation of experience over difference that’s something to pick apart, analyze and learn from. Christmas blessings to you and yours.

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