One year. Even for a country that has witnessed a tableau of horrors over the past several years, Dec 16, 2014 set a new, terrible milestone.

On that day, we learnt that what had gone before could yet be surpassed, that even our children could be deliberately singled out for brutality of the most unspeakable kind. On that day, 144 innocents — 122 students, and 22 teachers and support staff of the Army Public School, Peshawar — were massacred in a terrorist attack that plunged the country into mourning and sent shockwaves around the world.

It was a defining moment in Pakistan’s war against terrorism. By laying bare our helplessness in the face of such wholesale, pitiless slaughter, that moment tapped into our deepest fears. It changed us, but not necessarily in ways that can take us closer to the hope of an enduring peace.

Our response, rather than being guided by reason, was born of the desire for revenge. In the immediate aftermath, the government lifted the unofficial moratorium on the death penalty, asserting that only those convicted of terrorism would be executed.

But in the 12 months since, only about 20pc of more than 300 death-row inmates who have been hanged had been so convicted. Vengeance is incapable of inducing justice because it casts its net wide, scooping up not only the guilty — if it does that at all — but also those who are the most disadvantaged.

That is especially so in the case of Pakistan’s deeply flawed criminal justice system where the resources of the accused often determine guilt or innocence, death or freedom. Moreover, military courts, hastily acquiesced to by a government that placed expediency — and pressure from an ascendant security establishment — over its duty to protect fundamental rights, have ushered in a ‘justice’ mechanism unprecedented in its opaqueness.

Thus, over the course of the past year, this country has not only gone against the tide of global opinion that is increasingly turning away from the death penalty, but has also violated international covenants on civil rights.

Certainly, some sorely needed measures were also taken. The government announced a comprehensive National Action Plan for tackling religious extremism in society.

There has been a crackdown against hate speech; some suspect madressahs have been closed down; the leadership of sectarian organisations has been largely neutralised.

At the same time, much remains to be done. This country’s ill-conceived journey on the road to extremism has been long, complex and multi-layered. Finding our way back to a kinder, more tolerant place will be far from easy.

To do so requires society to abandon a long-held triumphalist narrative that makes a virtue of rigid dogma and faith-based persecution. But it is a battle we must take on — for our own sake, and that of the children who paid the ultimate price on Dec 16, 2014. It would, perhaps, be the most fitting tribute to their all-too-brief time on this earth.

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2015

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