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New blood-soaked benchmark

Updated December 17, 2014
The feet of a victim of a Taliban attack in a school are tied together  at a local hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. —AP/File
The feet of a victim of a Taliban attack in a school are tied together at a local hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. —AP/File

IT was an attack so horrifying, so shocking and numbing that the mind struggles to comprehend it. Helpless schoolchildren hunted down methodically and relentlessly by militants determined to kill as many as quickly as possible.

As a country looked on in shock yesterday, the death count seemed to increase by the minute. First a few bodies, dead schoolchildren in bloodied uniforms, then more bodies, and then more and more until the number became so large that even tracking it seemed obscene.

Peshawar has suffered before, massively. But nothing compares to the horror of what took place yesterday in Army Public School, Warsak Road. The militants found the one target in which all the fears of Pakistan could coalesce: young children in school, vulnerable, helpless and whose deaths will strike a collective psychological blow that the country will take a long time to recover from, if ever.

Also read: Militant siege of Peshawar school ends, 141 killed

In the immediate aftermath of the carnage, the focus must be the grieving families of the dead, the injured survivors and the hundreds of other innocent children who witnessed scenes that will haunt them forever.

Even in a society where violence is depressingly endemic and militant attacks all too common, the sheer scale of yesterday’s attack demands an extraordinary effort by every tier of the state — and society — to help the victims in every way possible.

For the survivors, the state can help ensure the best medical treatment, for both physical and psychological wounds, and rehabilitation. All too often, after the initial shock wears off and the TV cameras move on, the level of care and attention given to survivors drops precipitously. That must not be the case this time.

For the families of the dead, the state can find a way to honour their sacrifices beyond announcing so-called shaheed packages and promising to disburse cheques. It is also incumbent on wider society and the media to ensure that this time the state does more than the bare minimum.

Inevitably, the hard questions will have to be asked and answers will have to be found. Schools are by definition vulnerable, the trade-off between security and access making for a relatively soft target. Yet, vulnerability ought not to mean a disaster on this scale can occur so easily.

Where was the intelligence? The military has emphasised so-called intelligence-based operations against militants in recent months, but this was a spectacular failure of intelligence in a city, and an area within that city, that ought to have been at the very top of the list in terms of a security blanket.

Then there is the issue of the operation to find and capture or kill the militants after the attack had begun. The sheer length of the operation suggests the commanders may not have had immediate access to the school’s layout and there was no prior rescue plan in place.

Surely army public schools are under high enough risk to have merited some kind of advance planning in case of such an attack. Was that plan in place? Had there been any drills at the school to help the children know what to do in the eventuality of an attack? Who was responsible for such planning? Most importantly, will lapses be caught, accountability administered and future defences modified accordingly? The questions are always the same, but answers are hardly forthcoming.

The questions about yesterday’s attack can go on endlessly. They should. But what about the state’s willingness and ability in the fight against militancy? Vows to crush militancy in the aftermath of a massive attack are quite meaningless.

From such events can come the will to fight, but not really a strategy. Military operations in Fata and counterterrorism operations in the cities will amount to little more than fire-fighting unless there’s an attempt to attack the ideological roots of militancy and societal reach of militants.

Further, there is the reality that militancy cannot be defeated at the national level alone. Militancy is a regional problem and until it is addressed as such, there will only be a long-term ebb and flow of militancy, cycles destined to repeat themselves. Perhaps the starting point would be for the state to acknowledge that it does not quite have a plan or strategy as yet to fight militancy in totality. Denial will only lead to worse atrocities.

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2014