December 28, 2007 -- THE death of Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack in Ra walpindi yesterday has deprived Pakistan of one of the few political leaders who could have helped it unite against terrorism.
Since her return home this autumn after years of exile, Bhutto had been the target of at least three assassination attempts by elements linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. She had ignored repeated warnings that she might be risking her life by appearing at mass rallies with little protection.
"One cannot take part in democratic life from behind walls," she told me just a few weeks ago when discussing her plans for returning to power as Pakistan's premier after the Jan. 8 general election. "I am not like bin Laden or Mullah Omar, to run and hide in a cave. I have to be with my people."
Bhutto was one of the most charismatic leaders that Pakistan's charisma-loving politics had produced. Her late father, Zulkfiqar Ali Bhutto, who also served as prime minister before being put to death by dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq in 1979, often referred to her as "my first son," a compliment in terms of Pakistan's male-worshiping traditions.
Benazir, one of the four Bhutto siblings, has followed the path that her father and elder brother, Murtaza, took to "martyrdom," by dying at the hands of political foes. Her younger brother, Shahnawaz, was also found dead in mysterious circumstances in southern France two decades ago. The only one of the Bhutto children still alive is Sanam, the younger sister, who always has shunned politics.
In 2004, an international drive sought to elect Benazir Bhutto as the successor of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The idea was that, as an Asian Muslim woman, she'd broaden the appeal of an organization beset by mismanagement and corruption. Bhutto, however, refused to be tempted. She kept repeating that her destiny was linked to Pakistan. Following that destiny, Benazir opened negotiations with her political arch-rival, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, last year for a power-sharing scheme pursuant to next month's general election.
The talks broke down, however, because Musharraf, beset by riots, decided to impose a state of emergency and suspend some constitutional rights.
Benazir decided to return home and risk arrest in order to fight for an end to the emergency before the elections. She succeeded, and the emergency was lifted earlier this month.
Were the authorities ordered not to protect Benazir, as they should have done under the current dangerous circumstances?
Although the answer may well be no, Benazir's supporters are asking the question. How the question is answered could shape the next coalition government, in which the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Bhutto's political machine, is certain to play a major role.
In our conversations over the last few months, Bhutto insisted that the Pakistani general election should go ahead regardless of partisan and personal considerations. She believed that the only way to save Pakistan from terrorism and a Taliban-style regime was to mobilize the masses via democratic means. For her, dictatorship and terror were political twins that fed one another and kept each other alive. "Only the fresh air of democracy can kill this monster" of Islamism, she liked to say. "When the people are allowed to speak out, they will not speak in support of terror."
It's important now to fulfill Benazir's most ardent wish and make sure that the general election takes place. Calls for postponing or boycotting it should be resisted, especially by those who claim to carry her torch.
In the last three years, Pakistan has been transformed into the main battleground in the global War on Terror. Islamist terror has suffered strategic defeats in both Afghanistan and Iraq, partly because the two newly liberated nations have begun building a democratic system. In Pakistan, too, only a people-based government would have the moral authority and the political clout to smoke the Islamists out of the woodwork, where they have lodged themselves during years of military rule.
The Islamists - referring to Islam's history, in which the murder of leaders, including three of the first four Caliphs, was the surest way of coming to power - believe that by assassinating senior politicians they will kill all hope for democracy in the Muslim world. It's up to Pakistan and its friends everywhere to make sure that the Islamist analysis proves wrong.
The Islamists killed Benazir Bhutto as they killed her father. But they shouldn't be allowed to kill Pakistan's hopes for democracy. A massive voter turnout on Jan. 8 would be the best tribute to Benazir Bhutto, a woman of exceptional courage and a Pakistani patriot who won't soon be forgotten.