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No change of course

January 21, 2012

THERE is something to be said about wake-up calls — and not just those made by hotel receptionists seeking to shake awake sleep-deprived guests. As the world lurches from crisis to crisis, sometimes all it takes is that one defining, dramatic, moment to spur individuals, leaders or even entire nations to change course.

It’s not a question of one-size-fits-all. One man or woman’s life-changing event or wake-up call can leave another person completely unmoved.

But warning signals, red alerts or wake-up calls — call them what you will — have one thing in common: they shake you up, put an end to complacency and smugness and make you wonder if there is not a different and better way to conduct yourself. The event can be small or big, personal or national. It can be happy or sad, joyous or tragic. But once it happens, life, attitudes, behaviour are never the same again.

This is certainly true as regards the Sept 11 attacks. The attacks and the ‘war on terror’ that followed have changed the destiny of thousands of individuals and many nations. The sinking of Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia is a more recent case in point.

Italy has been shaken in recent months by the euro crisis, the erratic conduct of its former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the spate of scandals he spawned in his wake.

Yes, most Italians were angry and embarrassed by Berlusconi’s outrageous antics. And yes, they were shocked by the impacts of the sovereign debt crisis on their daily lives.

But nothing has shaken Italy as much as the tragic maritime disaster. Part of the grief is over the fact that more than 30 people are dead or missing and that hundreds more could have been killed during the botched rescue operations. However, it’s the cowardly conduct of the ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, that seems to have shocked the Italian nation into undertaking some much-needed soul-searching.

Critics say Schettino’s decision to disembark early, leaving hundreds of people behind, is a metaphor for how the country’s key politicians have often abandoned duty and put personal interest over the common good. Schettino is under house arrest and expected to be tried for manslaughter. A tape of his conversation with Capt Gregorio De Falco at Livorno Port Authority — who shouted “You get back on board!”— has gone viral. The exact Italian wording is now available on T-shirts.

As Italian writer Beppe Severgnini wrote in the Financial Times, Schettino is now a villain. “Italians today are all for Capt Gregorio De Falco who shouted ‘Vada a bordo, cazzo!’ Because this is where we want to be: on board, safely in Europe and within the eurozone, possibly without hitting the bottom first.”

Certainly, Italy’s technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti is not one to abandon ship. And if the cruise disaster does indeed work as a wake-up call, then Italians will be ready to follow his orders and stay on board as he steers Italy to calmer economic waters.

The latest move to downgrade the credit rating of an array of eurozone countries, including France, by credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s is another wake-up call — this time aimed at the oft-squabbling European politicians who have failed to get their act together on easing the eurozone debt crisis. Some EU leaders do appear to have got the message. For example even as he raged against the downgrade, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has responded to the criticism by ushering in a series of ad hoc measures to cut unemployment.

Last year, unexpectedly the Arab Spring was a huge wake-up call to an entire region — and indeed the Islamic world more generally — to listen to the voice and aspirations of an entire generation of frustrated people. Some leaders like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak were shocked out of their complacent dictatorial lifestyles by angry demonstrations. But Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi never really woke up to the new reality around him until his violent death while Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad also seems to be sleepwalking his way towards a disastrous end.

Pakistan’s civilian and military movers and shakers appear to be equally indifferent to warning signals and wake-up calls. One would have thought that the break-up of Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh in 1971 would have been a humbling ‘lesson learned’ moment for Pakistan’s arrogant political and military elite. Since then, however, there have been so many more red lines that have been crossed and so many ‘never again’ moments that have occurred over and over again. From the assassination of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and then of his daughter Benazir to the murders of Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti and to earthquakes and floods, Pakistan has received more than its share of wake-up calls which could have resulted in action and policies to put its house in order and stop repeating the errors of the past.

And yet, these and other tragedies have done little to provoke any real national reflection and debate on how to change course. Instead of learning from past mistakes, the latest stand-off between the army, civilians and the judiciary illustrates that Pakistan’s so-called leaders take an almost sadistic pleasure in taking their country over and over again to the edge of the abyss.

Yes Pakistanis are a resilient lot and yes they are patient with their leaders. But they also know that when the crunch does come, like the disgraced captain of the sunken Italian cruise liner, most of Pakistan’s politicians will jump ship, rushing to safe havens abroad, while the rest of the population is left scrambling for a limited number of lifeboats.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.