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Are terrorists human?

December 21, 2012

It happened over a year ago, on June 21, 2011, in the flat heat of Lahore’s unforgiving midsummer, Jamaat-ud-Daawa Chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed trooped up the stairs of the Lahore High Court and filed a petition. This was not in itself a novel occasion. In the age of the courageous courts, Pakistanis are used to all the flavors in the pot of justice; beards and men and petitions, all providing the ingredients for our nightly feasts of political smut. The head of a banned terrorist group standing up for Pakistani sovereignty and the rights of invisible unseen victims of drone attacks means only the promise of some rowdy political jousting at the end of another day. Irony, even this perverse piece of it; is lost in a Pakistan mourning too many deaths.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed December 10, 1948 in a place very far away from Pakistan and for problems very different from drones. In the shadow of World War II, the weary world reeled against the catastrophe of the Holocaust and its own belatedly awakened apathy, at help provided too late and after too many had died. In the hopeful years after it became the rallying call for unity; for the value of an individual life to be apportioned some dignity, to provide some bare boned armor against the action of a bully nation or bloodthirsty dictator bulldozing weak nameless others. The idea was that if a universal maxim on the protection of human dignity could be agreed upon by the world; a prerogative for upholding the essentially human beyond the specificities of belief or nation or race, then the world would be spared future cataclysms of human depravity.

For a time the recipe seemed to work; if imperfectly. Nations were shamed for imprisoning political opponents, their pomp and glory questioned when they mowed down protestors in Squares, used soldiers to rape women and allowed dictators to exterminate entire populations of ethnic rivals. There were some near pristine victories; strong countries intervening to stop genocides in weak ones, a vast UN peacekeeping force was created and funded for the very purpose watching out for those that had no guns and no watches. The world it seemed had developed some muscle on the bone of some core humanity; or so it seemed then.

Terrorism existed a long time before this new millennium began, but it was in this millennium that it began its slow murderous assault on human rights. In not belonging to no country, or to any country where they chose to set up shop, terrorists, the Mohammad Attas and Osama Bin Ladens of the world evaded the nation state model. They killed and slaughtered and bombed and made humans into bombs and they did it over and over and over again. The test for who is considered human, worthy of human dignity, came not from those who were being killed, but from those who were doing the killing. Is the terrorist human; and in the words of the Declaration “free and equal in dignity and rights” and worthy of being treated as such?

No one knew. The world watched and worried and the United States developed the drones. The drones were like the terrorists; elusive and silent and secret. Their victims became terrorists when they fell under their shadow. If the terrorists had cast the first blow on human rights by begging the question of whether a terrorist was human, the drones killed human rights by casting the final blow in the insistence that everyone they killed was a terrorist. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one thing; these scenarios begged the question: if a human who was a terrorist could not have human rights, a drone that killed terrorists was not killing humans.

Hafiz Saeed’s petition is our own Pakistani allegory for the millennial decline of human rights; for it pokes and prods at this very question. Is the terrorist still human and if not, whether there is any validity anymore to an international human rights discourse that is based on a Universal Declaration that may no longer be universal. There can be special rules of course, such as the ones the United States alleges exist for drones; we can debate them and question them; we can evaluate the relative guilt of Hafiz Saeed or of the health worker shooting Taliban, but in the arrangement of the weighing scales of human depravity we still remain without an answer.

In the meantime, Hafiz Saeed’s petition on drone attacks continues its course through the maze like rifts and valleys of Pakistan’s creaky court system; there are hearings and adjournments and submissions and objections. The midsummer of Lahore’s June has passed through the seasons to another winter. At one hearing held on October 14th 2012, the Lahore High Court rejected the Government’s response to Saeed’s petition as unsatisfactory. The hearing was adjourned again.

The case will not go anywhere, but with every appearance, Hafiz Saeed casts one more blow on the idea of human universality, of a set of basic rights that were believed to apply to all; but that seem in our present moment of utmost evil, universal no longer. Drones, in their remote, robotic mechanistic killings say no and beg for an exception. Once universality has an exception; it is universal no longer, ailing and flailing, if not simply dead and defeated. If the ambition to expose international instruments of humanity and solidarity is the chess game initiated by Hafiz Saeed, then his sweaty petition pushed through the dusty desks and crowded dockets of the Lahore High Court; may have won this round.


Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times,  Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.