ON Nov 5, 2013, Brian Holt, a hospital porter, died after colliding with a lorry in East London. His death marked the start of a two-week period that would see five more cyclists die in a series of accidents across London.
When another cyclist — the sixth in a fortnight — died from a similar collision on Camberwell Road, in a remarkable show of solidarity, more than 1,000 cyclists staged a ‘die-in’ protest outside Transport for London’s headquarters in Southwark. As the protesters lay on their backs with their cycles flattened across the floor, they demanded greater governmental spending on improving road safety for cyclists. The government responded and Metropolitan Police launched Operation Safeway — an effort to improve road safety by deploying officers at key junctions across London during rush hours.
A little more than a year later, and several thousand kilometres away, seven gunmen from the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) stormed the Army Public School in Peshawar (APS) and massacred 142 people, a majority being schoolchildren. The brutality with which innocent students were slaughtered sent shockwaves across the country. Civil society, professional associations, trade unions and other student bodies mobilised to honour those who had fallen. But at the vigil organised by Lahore’s civil society near the Liberty roundabout 500, perhaps less, people showed up — 500 only!
Why was there such a large difference in the number of people who showed up in Southwark and those who showed up in Lahore, both, apparently, protesting against the loss of human life? Why was it that 1,000 people in London felt compelled to step out of their homes to protest when only six people had died, and only 500 or so felt the same way in Lahore when more than 100 children were slaughtered?
Do Londoners value human life more than we do?
Was it because Londoners valued human life more than we did? Why was our citizenry’s response to APS Peshawar so embarrassing when compared with the one million Parisians who marched together to express solidarity against terrorist strikes? Why were we, unlike the Londoners and the Parisians, not able to translate our collective grief into affirmative action?
While we reflect on these questions, let us not forget that the cyclists’ deaths in London were not planned or premeditated and the drivers who collided with them did not intend to do so. Instead, the six deaths which 1,000 Londoners had stepped out to mourn were accidental, not intentional.
Contrast this with APS Peshawar, where children were murdered in cold blood. Unlike the cyclists, they were murdered intentionally. And yet, on the eve of the attack, when the wounds were still fresh, we failed to generate enough support to fill Lahore’s Liberty roundabout.
This is not to say that there were no protests, no vigils and no marches. There were a few of them for sure, but the important point is that these were all sporadic and the numbers — when compared to those in London and Paris — were embarrassing. For a tragedy of national proportions and for an attack that was as savage and as barbaric as ours, the response of our citizenry was disappointing.
If our collective response to APS Pehsawar was disappointing, then our reaction to the attack in Charsadda has been nothing short of chilling passivity: fewer protests with even poorer turnouts.
APS Peshawar woke us up from our slumber because it was the first such attack to target schoolchildren. It reminded us, after years of insensitivity, about the sanctity and value of human life. But if attacks on schools and colleges continue like this, will we gradually accept them as predestination and move on, as we seem to have done after Charsadda? Will we retreat back into our shells and conveniently let everything pass by? Judging from our response to Peshawar and Charsadda, it seems so and the signs are already there: our citizenry is descending back into a state of insensitivity, and whatever little consciousness had been gained post-Peshawar is now being lost post-Charsadda. That is our biggest danger.
We must realise that Pakistan’s fight against terror is in essence a war of narratives. It cannot be won on the mountains of Waziristan alone. To defeat terror we will first have to defeat extremism. For this, our citizenry will have to play a more proactive role — one that requires citizens to question governmental policies, reclaim public spaces, shape public narratives and demand tougher, stricter and uniform governmental action. Desensitisation of our moral conscience, that brings with it a gradual withdrawal from public space, is something we cannot afford and something we should all fear.
By asking questions and piling up enough pressure, London’s citizenry extracted Operation Safeway from their government. Can we follow suit and, as a starting point, pressurise the state into arresting Maulana Abdul Aziz?
The writer is a lawyer.
Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2016