Children are the Achilles’ heel of nations. Like parents, countries deal with tragedy but if it involves children, the issue becomes a catastrophe. And so it is for Pakistan and the loss of the 134 children killed by the savage Taliban in the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.
The government was busy conferring with the Taliban and detangling the good from the bad when there was an audacious attack on the cargo terminal of Karachi airport on June 8, 2014. Embarrassed the government began Operation Zarb-e-Azb and to date 1800 terrorists have been killed and many of their hideouts in North Waziristan destroyed. The Taliban had repeatedly vowed revenge; perhaps its brutality and its young, innocent victims were not something regular folk could have anticipated.
A young mother lost all of her four children that day. One of the victims didn’t want to go to school for he had knee pain; his mother convinced him to go and not skip school for small reasons. My heart aches for her torment. One of the students describes being in the auditorium and seeing children running in the hallway; one of them had been shot in the face.
16-year old Shahrukh Khan recounted: “One of them shouted: ‘There are so many children beneath the desks go and get them’”. Shahrukh said he felt searing pain as he was shot in both his legs. He decided to play dead: “I folded my tie and pushed it into my mouth so that I wouldn’t scream. The man with the big boots kept on looking for students and killing them. I lay as still as I could and closed my eyes, waiting to get shot again. I will never forget the black boots approaching me – I felt as though it was death that was approaching me.”
The carnage is beyond comprehension. The school walls look like sieves from the spray of bullets. Broken glass and pools of blood belie that this was once a school. A couple students’ notes are heart-rending. Finished homework has the words “THE END” written in large all caps. Another student wrote: “hum rahein na rahein, yeh gulshan salamat rahey ga” (whether we live or not this world will live on).
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif said: “The smaller the coffin, the heavier it is to carry it. And we’ve been carrying smaller coffins today, more than a hundred small coffins.”
The outrage in Pakistan and internationally has been deep. During a prayer vigil prominent civil rights lawyer Asma Jahangir said “those who refer to the Taliban as brothers are one of the Taliban”. She has cause to say this. For decades various governments have waffled in their approach to the Taliban lending a blind-eye to numerous attacks solely to shore up their own power bases.
Pakistan has paid a heavy price for participating on the war on terror: at least 50,000 Pakistanis, civilian and military have been killed since 2001. Pakistan’s army is one of the most competent in the world but fighting an invisible or chameleonic enemy is very difficult. Terrorist attacks at airports and military institutions require a good deal of inside information, and that was evident in essentially all the high-profile attacks of the Taliban.
There are numerous political and religious hues in Pakistan with a very troubling radicalization of a segment of the population. Economic disenfranchisement, anti-Americanism, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the killing of one million Iraqi civilians in the war on terror, the WMD propaganda and brain-washing all contribute to this turn to extremism. This radicalized segment orchestrates terrorist attacks or carries them out. Their relative anonymity makes their identification difficult if not impossible.
The sit-ins of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri were perfect crucibles for a terrorist attack and I remember the sick feeling that I would get worrying about the destruction that could be wreaked. The fact that this did not occur shows that a vigilant population can be a very effective preventive force. If you have new neighbors that seem to be hoarding weapons, please alert the authorities. If foreigners are willing to rent your house for an outlandish amount of money, be on your guard.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought the Kalashnikov and heroin culture to Pakistan. The easy availability of guns and a series of corrupt governments have armed and addicted a population. De-weaponization of the population, proper gun licensing and a money-for-guns exchange program should be an immediate priority of the government. A few minutes must be devoted in each Friday sermon to condemn terrorism and remind people that suicide is a ticket to hell and taking someone with you a confirmed reservation.
Catastrophic events can serve ironic purposes. All the political parties finally see that terrorism is Pakistan’s arch enemy. Imran Khan has decided to terminate the sit-ins. He was rapidly backing into a wall and shutting down Karachi was bad enough for him to lose credibility; closing Pakistan down would have destroyed it.
In 2008 Zardari had introduced a moratorium on the death penalty for terror-related cases. After the Peshawar massacre Nawaz Sharif has lifted this moratorium and also announced that they will not be differentiating between the good and the bad Taliban. I have been personally opposed to the death penalty due to numerous wrong convictions. But in the state that Pakistan is, we need speedy trials and convictions and the institution of the death penalty for enabling, orchestrating and committing terrorist acts. I am certain there will be a sharp decline in terrorism in Pakistan. Death by hanging can send out a chilling reverberant message.
December 16, 1971 was a dramatic point in Pakistan’s history when its army signed the instrument of surrender and East Pakistan ceased to be. December 16, 2014 has shocked and numbed all of Pakistan and if 180 million people unite in the fight against terrorism, we can create unprecedented peace in a nation full of potential and promise. We owe this to the blood of 145 innocents.