After Wednesday’s attack that left over 100 children dead, Pakistan wants blood. Khoon ka badla khoon. It is this impulse towards revenge that explains why Pakistan is facing such violence in the first place, and how it must reform itself. This attack is being spun in a manner that justifies further military intervention. Media outlets are rallying a sense of fear and anger in Pakistani society, and stoking a desire to react with more killing. The Express Tribune even ran an article by Kashif Ali that proposed immediately executing over 700 alleged terrorists on death row. It is as though Pakistan has gone blind with rage.
Earlier this morning, NATO-ISAF and the Pakistani military agreed to coordinate a targeted execution of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Maulvi Fazlullah. For all the moralist wailing about moves like this being justified responses to terrorism, they all but guarantee that more children will die in the future. It is important to step back from the horror of children dying, and analyze the attacks in unemotional terms. Wednesday’s attack killed the children of military officers in Peshawar, which was purposeful. The Pakistani military bears responsibility for its use of excessive violence during the invasion of South Waziristan six months ago with Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
It had no qualms about collateral damage inflicted during the assault. Beyond that, its officer class has tacitly supported the Pentagon in its counterterrorism efforts that frequently kill civilians, including many Pakistani children. The Taliban may have killed over 100 kids by gunpoint, but we helped create the edifice that made it acceptable to kill children in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, the Taliban isn’t a group of monsters, and it would not have become so easy for them to kill children without our behavior in this war. We should recall that during Zarb-e-Azb, Inter-Services Public Relations even went so far as to allow Facebook posts that displayed the corpses of dead militants. Commenters would respond with congratulatory remarks like “shabash, Pakistani military!” For all the liberal chatter of the Taliban being barbarians, Pakistanis have no right to claim a moral halo after gleefully celebrating such brutality. Yes, Wednesday’s killings were barbaric. So too was our uncivilized, and indeed un-Islamic, behavior that all but guaranteed that militants would respond in kind.
The story we tell about these dead children must include specifics about Zarb-e-Azb. It was yet another iteration in a long line of terrorism-retaliation-terrorism. This cycle has defined Pakistani society for thirteen years, and the military should have known better. It was certainly predicted by analysts and politicians in private that such a move would lead to bloodshed. There has been an obvious pattern. Military operations, cross-border raids, and recently drone strikes, cull an indiscriminate mass of potential terrorists. Terrorists that are missed, or purposefully allowed to escape, then move further into Pakistan to retaliate in major cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar. This is likely what occurred with the Jinnah airport attacks that led to Zarb-e-Azb in the first place, and will continue with however Islamabad responds to the Peshawar attack. The cycle continues, and with it, a pogrom-like desire for bloody murder that has defined the past few days. This nightmare is all but guaranteed if a renewed zeal for drone strikes continues after Fazlullah’s barely legal assassination.
It is fine that we are mourning our dead children, but if Pakistan is to stop these attacks, then it cannot simply use the military to bomb the problem. It must change course, and admit that the present trajectory will only generate more terrorism, and with it, more body bags. It is difficult to say how such a shift will look. After all, terrorism arises from a complex network of social and economic factors, and they all need to be reevaluated. Additionally, while it is obvious that decentralized militarism can’t be crushed, it is also clear that it cannot be negotiated away very easily. If it was that simple, Imran Khan would have succeeded in his efforts by now. The problem is that even though the military-aligned Pakistani middle class enjoys the pretense of liberal humanist civility, it baulks at the idea of extending those principles into wider society.
Pakistan has needed a substantive process of democratization for decades, and it hasn’t happened. Instead, it continues to operate in the throws of neoliberalism, with the helm oscillating between the Bhuttos, Sharifs, and the military. It is no surprise that given this failure to democratize, Pakistani society is being galvanized by a vicious wave of fundamentalism that threatens to engulf the country. It is only by dirtying ourselves with the hard processes of structural change that we can actually prevent terrorism. Otherwise, we will continue to mutilate our national spirit, screaming for murder as a mob that is indirectly digging our children’s graves. This may be too much to hope for, since I can already hear the gunfire from another attack every time a Pakistani asks a rhetorical question like, “do you really want mercy for such beasts!?”
Photograph courtesy of Benny Lin. Published under a Creative Commons License.