Our denial killed children in Peshawar

December 17, 2014

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Bullet holes are seen in the wall at APS a day after an attack by Taliban militants in Peshawar on December 17, 2014.  —AFP
Bullet holes are seen in the wall at APS a day after an attack by Taliban militants in Peshawar on December 17, 2014. —AFP

There is no sight uglier than a child’s corpse. I can say this because I have seen one dying before my eyes.

When a child dies, no words can console the grieving hearts of parents. And a cowardly terror attack on a school just snatched over a hundred children from the warm embrace of their parents in Peshawar.

Just try understanding the magnitude, the size of this all. More than a hundred families will now have their child-shaped holes in their lives forever. Parents all over the country will think twice before sending their children to schools again.

The children that survived the ghastly attack will never be the same again; their innocence, their childhood gone. It takes years for trauma victims to recover. Some don't recover even after that.

The question on every mind is, when the grieving is over, will the nation unite against the spectre of terrorism?

If the past is any guide, the sad answer would be no.

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

Pakistan is given a lot of credit for being a resilient nation. I think most of that is down to the state of denial we choose to live in.

There are always a myriad conspiracy theories circulating within our society. For reasons unknown, we choose to believe them.

We find the distant, often most improbable explanations for simple acts of violence plaguing our nation. Our workplaces, public places, government offices, security installations, hospitals, places of worship and now schools all have come under attack.

After every gruesome incident, TTP or one of its uncountable affiliates takes responsibility; often releases video clips with the assailant’s taped speeches before attack, and yet we refuse to believe it. That state of denial, in essence, is the terrorist's biggest weapon and his ultimate victory.

Sorry rehabilitation facilities

The logical question after a tragedy of this magnitude is about the rehabilitation of those who survive. Of the amputees, the irreparably wounded, and in this case, the innocent minds scarred for a lifetime.

But curiously enough, in this age of vibrant media, no one asks such questions. We count our dead, hardly mention their names, bury them, offer condolences, condemn the attacks and return to our normal lives without sparing a thought for those who have been handicapped for life.

Usually nations of the world devise social security nets for such victims — not our nation. And to think that this country has lost over 50,000 souls to terrorism; that in terror attacks the number of wounded is always higher than the slain; is to realise how many precious lives have been destroyed just because of our apathy, denial and lack of ownership.

Also read: Pakistan plunges into mourning

When the National Internal Security Policy (NISP) was recently introduced in the cabinet and the parliament, many of us felt relieved at seeing it included a rehabilitation component. Sadly, after much fanfare and hype, the NISP is still an unimplemented piece of paper.

I think everyone needs to know what survivors go through after their loss.

A couple of years ago a show I hosted on the plight of such victims and the sacrifices of our soldiers, took me to the Armed Forces Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine (AFIRM). There, I met one young officer who had sustained a head wound in a terror ambush. This man spoke for 15 minutes and yet, I could not understand a word he said.

Imagine the heartbreak of his parents and relatives to see him in such a state. That was despite the army’s best known care. Think of those who are at mercy of the civilian authorities.

Also read: Peshawar sinks in gloom

AFIRM is a state-of-the-art facility where I met countless bright young soldiers who had lost a part of themselves to terrorism. Given that this country has fought terrorism for 14 years and terrorists have attacked every nook and corner, the country should have similar facilities in every city. But civilian authorities don’t work that way. They just distribute cheques that sometimes are not even honoured and forget about the entire episode.

The missing counter terrorism national narrative

Then, there is the matter of a national narrative against terrorism. I have brought the matter up with so many successive presidents, prime ministers and senior ministers of this country that I have lost count. This country clearly lacks a coherent narrative against terrorism.

Not convinced? Just switch on your television and see for yourself what our leading talk show hosts discuss in their shows. You will be surprised to see how many conspiracy theories are dished out every single day.

The terrorists shout atop their voice that we are responsible for the terror attacks. Our anchors reply, no you are lying, so and so foreign intelligence agency is responsible.

Want to learn more about how pathetic our televised discourse on terrorism is?

First, just recall how deftly a large segment of our media projected Qadri’s Inqilab march and Imran Khan’s Azadi march as a revolution. And now notice how our media covers the Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. Ever since it started, this phrase has been repeated ad nauseam: Operation Zarb-e-Azb kamiabi se jari hai (Operation Zarb-e-Azb is proceeding successfully).

It is literally the same sentence every day, every hour — not a single word changes; almost an expression of boredom, like the ‘whatever’ your child mutters when you give them the same lecture for the nth time.

Also read: War of narratives

It seems a huge segment of our media doesn’t want to believe that the butchers of TTP and affiliates are capable of even hurting a fly. No wonder, then, that it took this country over a decade to pursue terrorists into their safe havens in Waziristan.

From the ever-increasing cases of polio to the terrorist attacks, it is this denial that keeps weakening our resolve. The NISP had proposed that from the rehabilitation of the victims to developing a national narrative, most terror-related chores be given to the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA).

Until recently, however, NACTA did not have a full-time head. It was after the Wagah tragedy that Hamid Ali Khan was made full-time chairman of the authority. However inter-departmental turf wars have made the task of the reconstitution and empowerment of NACTA a pipe dream. It is still being debated whether NACTA chief should report directly to the prime minister or the interior minister.

Befuddling intelligence mechanisms

And of course, the issue of intelligence sharing needs a mention here. A day before the Wagah incident, an eveninger carried the headline that a plan to attack a ceremony at Wagah was afoot and that the suicide attacker had entered Lahore city. No notice was taken. Keep in mind that such eveningers usually have access only to low levels of intelligence hierarchy.

Yet, the report was spot on. It was originally envisaged that an intelligence sharing mechanism would be devised. However, since it was to take place under the aegis of interior ministry, the inclusion of input from ISI proved to be tricky.

Why both the counter-terrorism body and the intelligence sharing mechanism could not function under the direct supervision of the prime minister’s office is mystery to me. The chief executive of the United States, its president, receives briefings directly from the intelligence community every day. Why can’t we have a similar set up?

Bungling around with counter terrorism rituals

And this discussion cannot be complete without the mention of our counter terrorism rituals. Often, when a terror attack of high magnitude takes place, an All Parties Conference (APC) is convened. In this conference, parties from across the spectrum are invited to deliberate on the incident.

Actually, the forum better suited for such deliberation is that of the parliament, where decisions are made through majority vote. However, in the APCs, the majoritarian principle is abandoned in favour of total consensus. And since some political parties are known to have a soft corner for religious militants, they manage to obscure the discourse, ensuring that the outcome is never actionable in nature.

And then there is mind-numbing outrage against the counter terrorism legislations in the parliament. Parties that claim to act as bulwarks against terrorism and extremism transform into shrieking banshees against laws for fighting terror.

Also read: Pakistan most terror-hit nation

I understand that there often are aspects of law that can be abused, but the real trouble, which we have all grown too immune to even hear anymore, is courts letting the terrorists go scot-free. Of course, they do.

What else can the courts do in the absence of appropriate laws clearly defining the offenses and the nature of the evidence?

The death penalty question

Similarly, there is the issue of terrorists on the death row. International community and centre-left parties all seem averse to the idea of hanging the criminals. We are often told that perks like the GSP-plus will be withdrawn if any of these terrorists are hanged.

I am not a supporter of capital punishment either. But when these terrorists conveniently manage to operate their terror outfits from within the confines of prison, which are often easy to breach, one has to wonder how many innocent lives this compassion of ours can cost us.

Know more: Nawaz removes moratorium on death penalty

Honestly speaking, if one were to do justice to the subject of terrorism, this piece would never end. However, the important point here is that when, after 14 years of war and over 50,000 deaths, if these basic questions are still unresolved, can we expect any dramatic change overnight? No, we can’t.

So, let me put it bluntly, dear readers, that our own apathy and denial have killed these innocent children in Peshawar. If we don’t put our house in order now, there is no guarantee this will not happen again.

It is time to ask your elected representatives to stop wasting time and start acting.