The terror of fighting terror

Published July 29, 2015
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

ON Saturday, July 25, The New York Times published a report on the conditions in Pakistan’s covert internment centres where those suspected of affiliation with the Pakistani Taliban are detained. Those incarcerated in these special prisons usually return dead or do not return at all. According to the report, their relatives have filed 2,100 petitions in the Peshawar High Court. Most have not produced any results; thousands hence occupy the murky category of being ‘disappeared’ persons. Sometimes, when a body is returned, the report says, there is pressure to refuse an autopsy or undertake a quick burial.

The report alleges there is little public outcry in Pakistan on this issue. Indeed, the metric on which to judge outrage in a maimed country, whose citizens daily witness a variable cast of catastrophe, is an elusive one. Whether or not they are outraged, Pakistanis are aware of the haplessness of the category of the ‘disappeared’, whose grief-stricken relatives appear now and again, holding placards in thin lines at important intersections: a tearful widow, a sad child. Their presence is the wallpaper of Pakistan’s terror-ridden moment: if not defining the décor of our dismayed dominion, they present a constant backdrop. In times of terror, truth is elusive and justice even more so. Are terrorism suspects almost or nearly terrorists, the lay reader pondering the condition wonders. Questions and doubt are good at staunching outrage.

It is not, however, a solely Pakistani problem. The irony of The New York Times report was not the deficiencies of truth: extra-judicial killings, torture, unwarranted condemnations, lack of accountability and vengeful resurrection of executions are all crude and unjust realities of the Pakistani present. The odd twist in the report lay instead in the implication that the condition of having become terrible in the fight against terror was Pakistan’s exclusive condition. In one illustrative instance, the report notes that the US State Department has continued to supply Pakistan with weapons and military aid despite being entirely aware of the country’s poor human rights record. The binary was the usual one: how could the US with its avowed commitment to transparency not have imposed sanctions on practices that are unjust and violations of international and human rights law?


The curse of terror is not only the dead children, the dread of crowded places, or the lingering fear of the belted bomber, but also the taint it casts on those trying to fight it.


In terms of its moral assumptions, the report, then, relies on an old binary: the good United States failing in its responsibility to properly police wayward Pakistan. It is this portion of the argument that is troublesome; if anything, the US has been a frontrunner in championing the precept that to fight terror, you have to become terrible. Days before this particular article was published, another sorry chapter in the US’s own inability to deliver either transparency or justice was in full view. In a speech last week, President Obama announced (yet again) that he was going to make an effort to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison, where hundreds of prisoners still remain over a decade after 9/11. The statement was met with sighs and snickers: Obama, everyone knows, promised to shut down the prison in one of his first speeches; that was years ago. Those disappeared prisoners, much like the ones in Pakistan, continue to languish; and even if the prison is closed there is no guarantee that those not charged with a crime will actually be released.

To point out the failings of the US in relation to illegal imprisonments, torture, lack of transparency and custodial deaths is not, however, an expiation of Pakistan’s dismal internment of its citizens without trial. What is notable is the fact that a terror-fighting superpower (the US) and a terror-afflicted wannabe power (Pakistan) are both flouting the rule of law and the requirements of justice in their efforts to apprehend terrorists. It is this cumulative trend, whetted and abetted by both, that is responsible for not simply Pakistan’s unknown numbers of disappeared persons. The decision to fight terror with terror, to justify torture, amplify secrecy and dissolve procedural law, hence has been a cumulative one. Both have birthed black sites and tortured bodies; both have described these acts as necessary; both have left tearful and tattered families without answers and without hope.

The cost of terrorism is often counted in bodies; but as Guantanamo lingers on and the families of the disappeared in Pakistan wait for news and hope against bodies, its moral cost must also be assessed. If there is little public outrage in Pakistan, there is a similar silence in the US. The publics, like the polity, have been convinced that terrorism must be fought with terror, that the ravages of bombings and the death of innocents require a similarly unabated thirst for blood. Apprehensions shrouded in secrecy must be made, bodies hung upside down and strapped to waterboards; new techniques of coercion must be developed. If the Pakistani public knows and does nothing, the American public — equally duped — does the same. The issue has become so banal that a recent publication of the ‘torture playlist’ of songs played by interrogators to break detainees barely caused a stir.

In everything else the Pakistani public opposes the US; in staying silent over the flouting of law and forgetting easily the wrongly imprisoned and the routinely tortured, it has joined hands with the imperial ignominy it otherwise denounces. The curse of terror then is not only the dead children, the dread of crowded places, the lingering fear of the belted bomber but also the taint it casts on those trying to fight it. The loss of moral power inherent in the abandonment of law, the secret persecution of possible suspects, the deaths of those that did deliver information or evidence, have birthed new criminals. Sometimes it seems the fight is not of good against evil but only between the varying flavours of depravity.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2015

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