Monday, June 28, 2010

A gun slinging nation

VIEW: A gun-slinging nation —Dr Mahjabeen Islam
Friday, June 25, 2010

When a government is entirely incapable of providing security to its citizens, it takes up arms to protect itself, and when the going gets tough those arms are used

Pakistanis have developed a markedly predatory character, on an individual, community and national level. Democracy is neonatal yet, and as scores are not settled in the ballot box, bullets are so much more efficient it seems.

We do not have an effective population control programme and it seems to me that people at large know this for they are doing their bit in subscribing to the Malthusian theory of population. Political economist Thomas Malthus theorised that population growth is stemmed by famine, disease and natural disasters. Taking the law into their own hands and gunning down tens to hundreds at a time, Pakistanis have added predatory practices to the Malthusian theory.

Listening to the news, especially anything related to Pakistan, is an exercise in adrenaline surges. Rarely does a day go by that some sort of violence does not occur on a significant scale in Pakistan. On individual levels, one hears of revenge killings or the calm motorcycle murders in Karachi in which one or two walk into a medical clinic, empty their revolvers into a doctor’s head, jump back on the motorcycle and vaporise into the crowd.

Assault rifles are used when vindictive families clash and, after all is said and shot, dozens lie dead on both sides. And, of course, the ever-present sword of Damocles, terrorism, in which suicide vests, combined with assault weapons, wreak havoc in one part of the country or another.

There was a time when one saw rifles slung on the shoulders of soldiers. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, tanks on street corners of Pakistani cities became commonplace and Kalashnikovs proliferated on the shoulders of chowkidars. And now it is not a status symbol to have rifle-wielding guards. Pakistanis feel that it is as necessary, perhaps, as food and water.

With poor governance, rampant corruption, a collapsing economy and an extremely high-strung nation, the chicken-or-the-egg theory applies. When a government is entirely incapable of providing security to its citizens, it takes up arms to protect itself, and when the going gets tough those arms are used. And now that the population is armed to the teeth, disarming it is going to be a mammoth project and one that the government is not only unprepared to undertake, it seems to see no need to do it.

This mind-boggling disinterest on the part of the government is borne out by a de-weaponising plan that is as ineffective as the redundancy in which it is described. This is not a time for bureaucratic retardation and lines and points of methods and plans, none of which have even been given semblance of shape.

Pakistan’s National Report on the Implementation of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW), June 2010, submitted to the UN by the interior ministry, states under the heading ‘Legal, regulatory and administrative framework’, in minuscule part:

“Production, import, export, transit and transfer of all weapons, including SALW, is strictly regulated under law. The laws and regulations are kept under constant review in order to ensure their relevance to new developments.

A very well defined and effective national system of export, import or authorisation of SALW exists in the country. Production of weapons for export is totally government controlled and falls under the purview of a specialised ministry, i.e. the ministry of defence.”

This is just a sample of the government’s tall claims and one wonders what the author was smoking while writing it, knowing of course that perverse corruption and unbridled power serve as the opium of the government for it to be so out of touch with the ground realities.

While winding up the budget debate in parliament, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said that ministers with six cars ought to be ashamed. Though he got desk-rapping applause for this, Speaker Fehmida Mirza appeared markedly uncomfortable and one wonders with what conscience parliamentarians applaud when many probably hit the six-car mark with ease.

SALW in Pakistan are produced firstly by state-owned enterprise, second by private manufacturers who operate under state license and regulation and, lastly, the Darra Adam Khel/Bara gun cottage industry, which is not under any state supervision. Weapons manufactured in Darra Adam Khel and Landi Kotal closely mimic the original, be they AK-47s or M-16s with apparently only the weight of the gun setting it apart from the lighter-weight original. The gunsmiths in Darra Adam Khel manufacture guns hidden in ballpoint pens and walking sticks as well!

Production and availability are not the problem anymore; proliferation is vast and reaches all segments of society. The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf website makes an effective suggestion about tracking gun-ownership by linking it to the NADRA locator. But that time has now sadly passed and probably has future importance when only very limited security agencies should be allowed to possess weapons.

The urgent need of the hour is to create a simple, viable and rapidly effective programme to disarm the civilian population. All arms of the government, the executive, legislature and judiciary must get on the same page now. Immediate brainstorming sessions must be held at all levels to develop and execute a plan that disarms and, at the same time, provides effective security to the population. This is certainly easier said than done, but it must be done or else our fall threatens to be precipitous and collectively fatal.

Prosecution for gun-ownership and uniform application of punishment should be announced, dependable and harsh. Only the police and armed forces need to possess weapons.

Presidential and prime ministerial bulletproof limousines and their security details could feed and clothe entire villages with ease. They also belie the hoarse screams of, “The day of death is fixed, that is our faith, and we do not fear death.”

There must be an equalisation of yardsticks. We cannot apply one to the widowed teacher who walks warily to school, wrapped in layers in the searing heat to avoid leering male eyes and another to the air-conditioned vroom of ministers with their fake degrees.

In a recent television discussion, commentator Javed Jabbar calmly spoke of the inevitable, which according to him was a peaceful or violent revolution. “Peaceful revolution is the better way but the way things are going, we are now walking towards the violent one,” he contended. I dread to think what would happen if civilian guns turned on their perceived oppressors. So let us de-ostrich ourselves and de-weaponise the citizenry now; maybe we can keep that inevitable change a peaceful one.

Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo, Ohio. She can be reached at