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From Zen silence to zero tolerance

Updated June 15, 2014

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- Illustration by Abro.
- Illustration by Abro.

Back in the 1970s when we were kids, my cousins and I used to find the ambiance of American movies and TV shows rather odd. Sirens from police cars in the background could often be heard in shows and movies and the actors would continue to deliver their dialogues as if it was no big deal. Also, scenes of newspaper and TV reporters chasing people with mics and cameras or covering acts of various crimes on the spot seemed even odder.

In those days Karachi police didn’t have many vehicles and one hardly ever heard a siren go off on the roads. And, of course, we just had one TV channel (the state-owned PTV), whose personnel only seldom ventured out. Compared to what we saw on American TV shows and movies (especially those based in cities like New York), life in Karachi seemed dull.

An aunt of mine (my mother’s younger sister) who had settled in New York City in 1970 came to Karachi for a visit in the late 1970s. I was 10 years old and would often ask her whether New York City was really always echoing with police sirens and whether TV reporters actually chased men and women or cover stories directly from the crime scenes. She used to laugh and say yes, the sound of police sirens was very common in New York and TV reporters actually did what we saw them do in all those TV shows and movies.


There couldn’t be a better time than now for political and security forces to differentiate between friends and foes, unite and put up a fight … but do they really want to?


Between the late 1960s and late 1980s, New York City had one of the highest crime rates in the world. Corruption was rampant in the police, and gangs of criminals and hoodlums operated openly on the streets, especially after sundown. But in 2012 when I visited New York City for the first time, it had become one of the safest cities in the United States! How did that happen?

In the early 1990s the state and city governments of New York and New York City, used a series of tactics that were based on the social, demographic and economic studies conducted on the New York crime scene. These initiated widespread reforms in the police, which also included empowering the police force to crack down on crimes of distinct nature and varying degrees with equal intensity (Zero Tolerance). The crime rate in the city, once one of the highest in the world, began to almost immediately go down and within the next decade it plummeted so much that it made New York City one of the safest in the United States.

Today in Karachi, one can often hear sounds of police sirens and gunfire. And on the gazillion TV channels that this country now has, the sight of hysterical TV reporters babbling incoherent hogwash from scenes of crime and terrorism is just too common. Then there are all those rather reactionary vigilante shows that pose as if they are doing us a service by safeguarding the country’s moral fibre and exposing crime, but are in fact doing anything but.

The truth is, the whole idea of activistic TV journalism in Pakistan is just another symptom of the chaotic and amoral malaise that is eating up this country; a malaise of which things like corruption, terrorism and bigotry too are a part. Worst hit in this respect is Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. Though this city can remind one of what New York might have been like more than 30 years ago, in New York the criminals were not associated with political parties or vicious extremist organisations.


Today in Karachi, one can often hear sounds of police sirens and gunfire. And on the gazillion TV channels that this country now has, the sight of hysterical TV reporters babbling incoherent hogwash from scenes of crime and terrorism is just too common.


On my trip to New York City I tried to explain this to an old, retired resident of the city. I don’t know how much he understood of what I was saying but his response, though simple, said a lot. This is what he said: ‘You know, it all depends on the people of the city. A time came when we (the New York City people), got completely exhausted by the economic and criminal mess here and craved for normalcy. The government and the police saw this as an opportunity. This is when they began to enact laws and tactics that they couldn’t before for all sorts of political reasons. But this time the people of this city supported them and the results were immediate ...”.

I believe the people of Karachi, in fact, all of Pakistan are now feeling a similar shade of exhaustion. And if only Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government allow themselves to detach from a strange, vacant sense of quiet Zen immobility they seem to have adopted, and if only the ruling parties in Sindh, Balochistan and KP break through the complex political cobwebs they have been caught in, they will find a huge mass of exhausted Pakistanis willing to support the implementation of whatever it takes to pull the country back from the brink.

The people have the will. Now is the time for the politicians and security forces to treat this as an opportunity and exhibit some will of their own as well.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 15th, 2014