ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Three hours after U.S. President Barack Obama announced Osama bin Laden's death from the East Room of the White House, I found myself sitting in the Jadoon Shopping Plaza in Abbottabad, Pakistan -- the resort town where the killing had happened eight hours earlier -- talking with a man named Sohaib Athar. The owner of the Twitter account named @ReallyVirtual, Athar had just achieved a strange sort of celebrity as the man who had inadvertently live-tweeted the climax of the most expensive, most hyped, and, at times, most surreal manhunt in history. Several hours before the world would learn who had died in the Abbotabad night, he tweeted: "Since taliban (probably) don't have helicpoters, and since they're saying it was not "ours", so must be a complicated situation." Complicated indeed. When we met later, Athar said he "never imagined it would be bin Laden, at the bottom of it all."
One of the founders of a Lahore-based U.S. technology startup, Athar moved his family to Abbottabad two years ago. He was getting tired of the guilt associated with deflecting his six-year-old son's constant questions about suicide bombings and terrorist violence, things that have become regular features of life for residents of Lahore. He chose Abbottabad because of its reputation for serenity and safety, and upon arrival decided to make his own contribution to the community: a sleek and modern café that serves quite exceptional coffee and plays great music, opened by Athar and his wife after they discovered that their new environs were lacking a decent gathering place for young people. Everything was going fine until Sunday night, when a U.S. military helicopter fell out of the sky over the city. At the time, Athar tweeted "The abbottabad helicopter/UFO was shot down near the Bilal Town area, and there's report of a flash. People saying it could be a drone." Later, he wrote "Funny, moving to Abbottabad was part of the 'being safe' strategy."
If Athar's story is deeply ironic, it also speaks volumes about the lives of ordinary and decent Pakistanis today. If the Pakistani state's duplicity and dysfunction represent darkness and fear, Athar's story -- in which a highly skilled, educated young man moves from a broken Pakistani city to a beautiful one and attempts to improve it further -- represents hope and light. His bewilderment at how violence has chased him is the bewilderment of a whole country.
The news of bin Laden's death may have been greeted with a spontaneous outpouring of joy and patriotism on the streets of American cities, and with relative disinterest in the Middle East, which is still preoccupied with the sights and sounds of the Arab Spring and probably was never really all that enamored with bin Laden to begin with. But in Pakistan, where bin Laden allegedly made his home for years -- some reports suggest as many as five -- the killing of the founder and leader of al Qaeda is not the end of a story. It is, sadly and inevitably, the beginning of a new chapter in an epic saga of death, destruction, deception and degeneration in Pakistan. If Americans are confused about exactly what Pakistan is up to, they need to get in line. Pakistanis are more confused -- utterly so.
This confusion has been carefully cultivated by a national elite whose singular focus is the accumulation of wealth, at all costs. In the near-decade since 9/11, Pakistan's generals, judges, politicians, and bureaucrats have constructed two separate and equally effective narratives. To the West, they sold the bin Laden version of Pakistan: a fanatical nation, full of restless natives armed to the teeth with hatred and -- if the West wasn't careful -- nukes. To ordinary Pakistanis, they sold the Ugly American version of the rest of the world: a big bad Uncle Sam and friends who were always burning Korans, knighting Salman Rushdies, and violating the Land of the Pure (the literal meaning of "Pakistan").