Six Degrees of Assassination

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On suicidal freedom fighters here and abroad

You’ve heard of six degrees of separation. What about six degrees of assassination? That’s the number of people that separate you from the victim.

Sadly, I find myself between zero and one degree in three instances that have occurred since August. That’s three times too many for my tastes.

The concept of “degrees of assassination” hit me as I considered the death of Benazir Bhutto last week from: (a) a gunshot wound, (b) shrapnel from the explosive set off by a suicide bomber, or (c) a blow sustained when her head caught the edge of a sunroof. The Pakistani government has made the matter of the truth a kind of horrific multiple choice quiz. There is scant interest in the actual truth, which may explain why Pakistani officials failed to do an autopsy before burial, or why it washed away the crime scene before a complete investigation could be done. This is what happens when democracy is optional.

I’m sad for Bhutto and her fellow countrymen who sought our notion of democracy. But I must admit, I often saw Bhutto as not much different from the way I saw Imelda Marcos.

I didn’t know Bhutto directly, but we were both at Harvard at the same time when the majority of Asians who attended the school were foreign elites, not scholarship kids from the Mission District. She ate with the rich kids and had a thing for privilege.

Frankly, it didn’t surprise me that her later tenure as Pakistani premier was marred by corruption, which resulted in the exile of her husband. Bhutto was hardly a perfect icon for democracy. But in a world gripped by terror, perfection is relative. Compared to Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Bhutto was practically a holy woman.

Her return to Pakistan in October after a failed assassination attempt now seems more than a bold political stand. It was more like the first step of a cleansing act of courage and redemption. What’s the opposite of a suicide bomber? A suicidal freedom marcher?

In doing so, the elitist met a commoner’s death in a land where, for most people, the “degree of assassination” is zero.

They killed Pheng Lo
The global news would have been shocking enough, but I found myself already mourning the victim of a more “grassroots” assassination closer to home.

While the Bhutto story played on the world stage, there was hardly any coverage of the death of Pheng Lo, 59, the unofficial mayor of the Hmong community in Stockton.

Lo, a refugee from Laos in the ’80s, was shot and killed on Dec. 19 as he left his offices at the Lao Family Community, a social service agency that helped all comers but specialized in the needs of Southeast Asian refugees.

Growing up in San Francisco, I didn’t know much about the Hmong, except for the fact they had traditions that often conflicted with American values. For example, the tradition of older men marrying teen brides is one of the culture’s enduring taboos.

But I learned to love and respect the Hmong, and it was all because of Pheng Lo.

For two years, I covered the Hmong in Stockton, and Lo was my guide. When the Hmong came in a vast resettlement of refugees from a camp in Thailand, Lo helped me tell the stories of those families coming to America. When I wanted to talk to child brides, Lo would help me find girls to interview about the importance of keeping their cultural traditions alive.

Through Lo, I was able to let the broader population begin to know a little understood community. He was also able to grow in stature as the “go-to person” with anything in the Hmong community.

So why would anyone want to gun down Lo? Stockton Police are investigating and asking members of the Hmong community with knowledge of the murder to call them at (209) 937-8323.

I certainly wouldn’t consider Lo’s death a random act of violence. It easily could have been a politically motivated hit by exiled Hmong who disagreed over the future of their homeland, Laos.

Lo now joins another friend and journalistic cohort of mine, Chauncey Bailey, the Oakland editor gunned down in August as he investigated corruption involving a Black Muslim bakery and police.

Their grassroots assassinations ring as loudly as Bhutto’s and are no less impactful. All of them were gunned down trying to do the world some good.

Now next to the Bhutto newspaper headlines on my desk are Pheng Lo’s picture and Chauncey’s business card with his handwritten name and cell phone number.

We can do nothing more to honor them, except to refuse to live in fear or intimidation — at home or abroad.


About the Author

For almost 15 years, Emil Guillermo wrote his "Amok" column for AsianWeek, which was the largest English language Asian American newsweekly in the nation. "Amok" was considered the most widely-read column on Asian American issues in the U.S. His thoughtful and provocative social commentaries have appeared in print in the San Francisco Chronicle,, San Francisco Examiner, USA Today, Honolulu Star Bulletin, Honolulu Advertiser, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and in syndication throughout the country. His early columns are compiled in a book "Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective," which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 2000. Guillermo's journalistic career began in television and radio broadcasting. At National Public Radio, he was the first Asian American male to anchor a regularly scheduled national news broadcast when he hosted "All Things Considered" from 1989-1991. During his watch, major news broke, including the violence in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of dictatorships in Romania and Panama. From Washington, Guillermo hosted the shows that broke the news. As a television journalist, his award-winning reports and commentaries have appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS. He was a reporter in San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C. After NPR, Guillermo became a press secretary and speechwriter for then Congressman Norman Mineta, the former cabinet member in the Bush and Clinton Administrations. After his Hill experience, Guillermo returned to the media, hosting his own talk show in Washington, D.C. on WRC Radio. He returned to California where he hosted talk shows in San Francisco at KSFO/KGO, and in Sacramento at KSTE/KFBK. Guillermo's columns in the ethnic press inspired a roundtable discussion program that he created, hosted, executive produced, resulting in more than 100 original half-hour programs. "NCM-TV: New California Media" was seen on PBS stations in San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, and throughout the state on cable. Guillermo also spent time as a newspaper reporter covering the poor and the minority communities of California's Central Valley. His writing and reporting on California's sterilization program on the poor and minorities won him statewide and national journalism awards. Guillermo, a native San Franciscan, went to Lowell High School, and graduated from Harvard College, where he was an Ivy Orator and class humorist, a distinction shared by fellow Lampoon members like James Downey (Saturday Night Live) and Conan O'Brien. Find out what he's up to at