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Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip…

January 29, 2012

THE pages of history are littered with the remains of those that failed, no small number of them martyrs to the law of unintended consequences.

Purposive action will sometimes have the desired and estimated effect, and may even occasionally yield some beneficial side effects, but quite often it will throw up a situation that spells disaster. The chain of causality is convoluted and many-stranded.

So it was that when Gen Musharraf liberalised the country’s media policy, there was no way he could have imagined that he was thus committing himself to hurtling down towards a future in which his very creation, his much-vaulted “gifts to the nation”, would play a decisive role in inducing him to vacate the seat of power.

Back at the turn of the millennium, there could have been no way of foretelling the sequence of events and regrettable decisions that, in 2007, caused people — or at least, civil society — and the media to throw in their lot with the judges and the lawyers, and the whole to snowball into something of a revolution complete with a dethronement scene at the end.

When the dust cleared, Pakistan was minus a soldier at the helm of civilian government but plus a number of institutions with a renewed sense of empowerment.

Fast forward from those days to now when in many people’s view our erstwhile heroes have turned out to have not just clay feet, but disgracefully so. Consider the legal community. A citizenry appalled by the murder of the then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer found, to its consternation, cause to be even more appalled by the support offered by a great many lawyers to the killer, Mumtaz Qadri.

Since 2007, we have watched unpalatable instances where lawyers have used strong-arm tactics in courts, against individuals that were part of the judiciary, and watched footage of lawyers clashing with the police.

Today, the more sensible of observers watch aghast as members of the legal fraternity vilify and ridicule a senior colleague — who they themselves lionised a few years ago — because he chose to represent the prime minister of the country.

The other winner of the events of 2007, the media, finds itself in a perhaps even more unpalatable place four years on. The major topic of discussion at the moment with regards to the ethical and professional compass of the country’s media landscape is the footage aired on a morning show, the host, flanked by upper-class dames, chasing down couples strolling innocuously in a Karachi park.

From the defenders of freedom and democracy to vigilante guardians of our morality? How far the industry would seem to have fallen. Surely this is not what was intended by the liberalisation of the media.

The show currently being talked about is not the only one, nor is this the only channel, to have violated privacy, constitutional freedoms and even the norms of civilised behaviour in the name of either ‘getting the story’ (read: ratings) or crusading on the side of what individuals consider ‘right’.

Such fare is what sections of Pakistani journalism consider defendable as something that needs to be exposed because it was in the overarching public interest — trial and punishment in the anchor and his organisation’s court of morality and that too without a search warrant that even the police are required to obtain before they can raid the private property of any individual. Again, surely this wasn’t the intended effect of empowering the media.

One answer can be found in hypothesising that as a body, those involved in the ‘revolution’ of 2007 were given increased confidence and even lauded for seeing themselves on the side of what is ‘good’ and ‘right’. In truth, though, like every other facet of a Pakistan that is broken and breaking down, all those involved were ordinary individuals, flaws and failings included, elevated to a position of reverence for which they weren’t prepared.

Absolute power, especially with righteousness to boot, is likely to corrupt absolutely — and if not corrupt, then at least lend a sense of infallibility and invincibility that can lead disastrously, damagingly, astray. That one’s man ‘right’ is often another’s ‘wrong’ only further complicates a problem to which the only solution lies in the adage about my freedom ending where your nose begins.

Yet the law of unintended consequences alone does not explain the viciousness and no-holds-barred fighting that is evident across Pakistan’s landscape today, of which the media constitutes merely the loudest representative voice.

In the politicians’ vengeful avowal that Musharraf be arrested if he dares return, in the vitriol of X party’s supporter against Y party, in the demand made recently in the Punjab Assembly that those thought to practise magic at graveyards be issued the death penalty forthwith, in a body politic increasingly turning towards the violent and the simplistic — everywhere, the eye of the imagination can see dogs, young and vicious and slavering, straining at the leash to pursue the perceived evildoer, the dissident, the other.

One way to understand this is through the Shakespearean lens of “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war”. If ‘war’ is understood as conflict, then Pakistan has run the gauntlet over the course of its history.

Havoc has been dealt out by all parties, at every level, from the long running civil-military stand-off to the current militant-terrorist threat, from the politicians to the army to a society whose different factions are at war, from the bludgeoning dealt out by economic or employment conditions to the wretchedness dictated by illiteracy and poverty.

If there is viciousness and a sense of nothing to lose all around us today, it must logically have to equal the viciousness of the conflicts that created the dogs of Pakistan’s 65-year-old war.

These products of war constitute the young Pakistan, the mob that rules the brave new world; and if the old guard looks on in dismay, repeating aghast that this torrent of anger is not what was intended … well, so well it might.

The writer is a member of staff.