Conflict & Justice

'There goes the neighborhood'

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Sohaib Athar

by Marco Werman

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Sohaib Athar is the man who tweeted his annoyance about helicopters buzzing loudly over the town of Abbottabad late last Sunday. He continued his Twitter notes on what was happening, and before he knew it, he was live-blogging the entire US raid and killing of Osama Bin Laden.

When he realized Bin Laden was dead, he ended his inadvertent coverage with this line: "There goes the neighborhood." I wondered what he meant.

Earlier this week, I messaged Athar and asked him. He's a guy who moved to Abbottabad to get away from crazy city life and curious people like me. So I wasn't surprised he's been mute most of the week ever since his instant celebrity. So, allow me take a stab at a few interpretations of his line.

"There goes the neighborhood" is a phrase with racist overtones. Just ask rapper Ice T. His angry metal-rock-meets-rap tune "There Goes the Neighborhood," recorded with his 1990s outfit Body Count, gives you a sense of just what a lightning rod the phrase was. Recall that in the 1960s in the US, white families began heading out of the cities to the suburbs. Relatively affluent African-American families followed. But a black family arriving on one of those suburban streets sometimes provoked residents to utter "there goes the neighborhood." Racist economics concluded that as more blacks moved in, property values would decrease.

That's not what Athar meant about Abbottabad. Or is it? "That's true. Property values are going down since that thing in Abbottabad." So says a real estate agent I contacted yesterday in Abbottabad. The city has grown popular in recent years, he told me, with property investors and second-home buyers looking to get out of Islamabad. But that all changed Monday he says, referring to the raid on Bin Laden as "that thing."

"Believe me, since that thing happened here in Abbottabad, prices went down. They didn't go up. And a lot of people are scared to invest any more in Abbottabad."

I asked the agent whether property owners in Abbottabad have, since Monday, already begun listing their homes, and preparing to move.

He explained that most of the investors in Abbottabad are from all over Pakistan. "People come over here, buy properties or a house. But since that thing happened over here, all the investors, they've stop spending their money in Abbottabad."

Maybe investors' fear is rooted in a worry that sleepy Abbottabad could become a shrine for Al Qaeda. I put that to Declan Walsh, the Guardian newspaper's man in Pakistan. His answer: "It's certainly highly plausible that supporters or simply the curious would flock to this house. But my guess is that the Pakistani government, its military and intelligence services would probably want to destroy this house. They don't want it to turn into some sort of shrine, that it's going to attract either the curious or Bin Laden sympathizers over the years."

Fair enough. But maybe "there goes the neighborhood" means that, now with this successful US raid, the Americans will actually increase their presence in Pakistan. Declan Walsh doesn't think so. He says it'll probably remain the same, with the US continuing its already ongoing operations, "most notably the drone strikes in the tribal belt."

The White House has said it wants to prevent a safe-haven for terrorism from growing in Pakistan. It doesn't want the Taliban anywhere near the halls of government in Islamabad. That would be really bad, says Ron Rosenbaum. He's written a new book with the ominous title "How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War Three."

"When (Athar) said 'there goes the neighborhood,' explains Rosenbaum, "I thought you know 'there go a lot of neighborhoods possibly.'" In his book, Rosenbaum walks the reader through the likeliest war scenarios that could lead to nuclear annihilation. And he says the biggest concern, the most likely flashpoint right now, is Pakistan.

"What happens if a Taliban-friendly, Qaeda friendly takes over Pakistan?" puts forth Rosenbaum. "They're taking over a minimum of 90 nuclear warheads. Are the people in Washington going to be happy about the fact that al Qaeda suddenly has the fourth largest nuclear arsenal in the world under its influence? I don't think so. I've heard people talk about war games in which just this possibility is played out. What do we do if we think the Taliban get nuclear weapons? Well, one plan, and it doesn't seem like one that's very practical or one that's very likely to succeed, is that we try to take custody of the nuclear weapons."

If that's the scenario, then the definition of the "neighborhood" would include the entire planet. This morning, Sohaib Athar, the tweeter in Abbottabad, finally posted answers to questions his new followers have put to him this week. As for the meaning of "There Goes the Neighborhood"? Athar wrote: "Abbottabad has never attracted a lot of attention from either the terrorists or the media. The event was certainly going to change all that."

To say the least.

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