THERE’s no better way to say this so here goes: the terror attacks on Karachi airport were not the handiwork of Indian agents. There is a fever that needs to break if we are facing this menace in earnest, and not just with empty rage.
Who are these terrorists? And what do they want?
As Pakistan has struggled with these questions over the years, and once again plays out the same debates with nauseating monotony, I’m reminded of something I learned when observing the cognitive coping mechanisms that emerge when a bubble develops in the financial markets.
I call it bubble era psychology and it’s something I glimpsed as a television anchor during the stock market bubble of the late Musharraf years — particularly in 2007. Those with any brains knew that a bubble of epic proportions had developed in the stock market at that time, but nobody wanted to say it out loud. Only the dimmest bulbs in the chandelier — and yes, there were plenty of them — actually bought the spin about the sharply rising values being linked in some fantastic way to fundamentals.
It’s never easy to acknowledge that one has done oneself in with one’s own hand.
Nobody wanted to say what everybody knew because they were having too much fun and were afraid that calling the bubble by its name would somehow jinx it all. So they all lied: to each other, to their clients, and in some cases to themselves about the reality of what was going on.
‘No impact on Pakistan’ everybody would happily declare as the fires of the global financial crisis engulfed one market after another. Money poured into the stock market in quantities never before seen even as every warning sign on the planet was flashing with dire urgency.
The power of denial and wishful thinking is something financial markets are intimately familiar with, since they always underlie the destructive energies of speculative bubbles.
Something similar is happening as I watch my fellow Pakistanis coping with, and trying to make sense of the terrorism that is engulfing our country. First of all, like most retail clients in the financial markets, they don’t have the knowledge required to make sense of the fast-changing circumstances they are caught up in.
Retail clients in financial markets made up their minds based on flimsy advice peddled by TV anchors on business shows, or the salespeople of brokerage houses, and what they hear others around them saying. Most people today are also trying to understand terrorism without any history or context, and certainly without much idea of what all has been done in other countries in their name.
As a business journalist, I used to often get people asking me investment advice in those days, and my answer was always the same: get out of the stock market. But the bubble created illusions of spectacular gains and averting one’s gaze from it was very difficult. The allure of quick riches that it held out was too powerful so of course nobody followed my advice. In the end they all got burned as the market collapsed and withdrawals were frozen.
Something similar is happening to Pakistan today as it is engulfed by terrorism. People lack the knowledge that they need to make sense of the phenomenon — even though there has been a constant roll of journalists calling out the military for pursuing the disastrous policy of cultivating and grooming jihadist militias as tools of statecraft, most people haven’t really been paying attention.
The animal spirits that drive a financial market bubble are perhaps the mirror opposites of those that keep people from seeing the problem of terrorism for what it is. Denial and wishful thinking drive the mind in both cases, but in opposite directions. Once again there is a fevered search for answers. Once again the stakes rise with time. And once again, the solution is in fact simple and straightforward: get out of the game, which in this case would mean the game of nurturing these groups as assets of statecraft.
But unlike the stock market, that kept a lock on one’s gaze with its allure, this proposition repels the gaze because of the discomfort of its implications. After all, it’s never easy to acknowledge that one has done oneself in with one’s own hand.
Many of those who were burned in the stock market bubble, for instance, refused to acknowledge that ultimately the fault as well as the money they lost, was their own. On the day the market crashed, a mob attacked the Karachi Stock Exchange and smashed the windows in blind and impotent rage.
There is a marked similarity in the kinds of coping mechanisms that I’m seeing people develop in response to the complex anxieties of a financial market bubble, and the rising tide of terrorism and militancy that is engulfing our country.
In both cases, denial and wishful thinking have driven sentiment. And where the fevered pursuit of illusory profits only paved the way to ruin in the case of the financial market bubble, the same sentiments in the pursuit of an illusory peace with the militants will pave the way for far larger devastation.
So, my dear Pakistanis, now that we’re facing a threat to our survival far graver than anything the financial markets could throw at us, here’s a little more plain truth: get out of this game of using terror groups as assets.
Stop telling yourself and others around you comfortable little lies. These monsters are of our own creation, a story that has been so amply told by now that it leaves one a little staggered to encounter those who still need to have it explained to them.
Only we hold the key to ridding ourselves of this menace. A few more years of this madness, and there may not be many windows left for the mob to smash when the fever breaks and reality crashes ashore.
The writer is a business journalist based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2014