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Cause and effect

March 09, 2013

THE other day, little Suleiman entered the room and announced: “It’s very dangerous! It’s very dangerous!” Since my grandson is only two, I was amused and asked his mother what that was about.

Chuckling, Sheila said he was repeating what she told him when he was about to get too close to the stove, or stick his fingers into a power outlet. And this is how children are brought up: parents warn them against dangers, and teach them about the consequences of their actions.

When they grow older, they learn rules at school, and the concept of reward and punishment guides their actions. Society imposes its own regulations. When we were growing up in Karachi in the 1950s, cops would stop us and make us get off our bikes if we were riding them after dark without lights. Now, of course, few are even aware of this legal requirement.

Over the years, I have watched the growing disconnect between cause and effect. In my 50 years of adulthood, I have seen people getting off for all kinds of crimes and misdemeanours ranging from theft to murder. And as the state’s authority has receded, criminals of all kinds have been emboldened.

A few days ago, a friend was held up at gunpoint on the outskirts of Karachi, and relieved of his cellphone, wallet and watch. A common enough occurrence in a crime-ridden city, and hardly worth reporting. But what was revealing was his subsequent experience at the local police station: the officer on duty told the victim that he could take him to where the criminals came from, but if he arrested them, they would be released in a couple of hours.

It is this virtual immunity from punishment that has made Pakistan such a dangerous country. When nobody has to pay a price for criminal behaviour, there’s nothing to stop them from robbing and killing at will. Even if criminals are occasionally arrested, they are usually let off by an incompetent judiciary, especially if they are accused of terrorism.

Without the kind of deterrence normal states deploy, groups like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and the Taliban are free to slaughter at will, safe in the knowledge that even if they are caught, they will soon be released. Why should young men like the ones who held up my friend work for a living when they know that crime pays and that the political party they belong to will have them released?

Today’s violence in Karachi is being fuelled in large measure by the immunity provided to criminals from different ethnic groups by the political parties that formed the ruling coalition. In return, these gangs pass on some of the proceeds of their crimes to their political masters. The police are helpless because they know that even if they arrest these thugs, they will soon be released.

Meanwhile, the people of Karachi suffer frequent ‘protest days’ when the city is forcibly shut down. But there are economic consequences of these ‘peaceful and democratic’ closures. Ever since the mid-1980s when the MQM acquired a stranglehold on the port city, industries have been moving out.

Later, as some parties acquired firepower to counter the MQM muscle, the situation got worse and today, many industries have moved to Punjab or the Gulf from the country’s biggest city. With these businesses have gone thousands of jobs. So when young people can’t find work, they should demand relief from the cynical politicians who control the city’s destiny.

With laws being observed only in the breach, politicians, bureaucrats, generals and judges have all cashed in, knowing that there will be no sanctions, either legal or social. Businessmen avoid taxes as a matter of routine, generally in connivance with tax-collectors. Legislators and ministers don’t pay their utility bills.

When Shahrukh Jatoi allegedly shot Shahzeb Khan dead a few months ago, he must have felt secure in the knowledge that his powerful daddy would protect him. His bad luck was that the murder caused such a hue and cry in the media that the chief justice called for immediate action. The fact that young Jatoi was able to flee allegedly with the help of airport staff speaks volumes for the culture of entitlement that has taken root in Pakistan.

This disconnect between cause and effect has also infected our security establishment. When they created and used jihadi groups to further their agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir, our generals were acting against internationally accepted norms. In the former theatre, they were aided and abetted by the CIA in the 1980s. Clearly, they assumed that using Islamic militants was a no-risk, win-win tactic. Decades later, these terrorists are ravaging the country with little resistance from the state.

In the tribal areas, we continued the colonial policy of using the lawless territory as a buffer zone. But by not integrating it fully within the state, we allowed criminal activity to flourish. Now we are surprised that it is home to several nests of terrorists. Clearly, we did not understand the long-term effects of uncontrolled tribal autonomy, and are now paying the price.

New York was once known as the crime capital of the United States. This image was transformed when Mayor Rudy Giuliani hired Bill Bratton as police commissioner to implement a policy of zero tolerance. There was a crackdown on petty crimes like graffiti, public drinking and urinating, and travelling free on the subway system. Soon, the overall crime rate declined, and has stayed relatively low.

What this “broken windows” theory, developed by George Kelling, shows is that once the authorities begin to make even petty criminals pay for their acts, society becomes safer. If — as happens in Pakistan — lawbreakers know they are safe no matter what they do, peaceful citizens will be at risk.

In New York, it took one determined mayor who had the political will to clean up his city. In Pakistan, sadly, all the power brokers are too busy lining their pockets and protecting their interests to bother about the rest of the country.

When the state is unable to arrest, prosecute and sentence known leaders of terrorist outfits, this sends a clear signal to the rank and file that they are free to kill and rob. It also sends a signal to the police to lay off. Until the link between criminal action and retribution is restored, we will continue wringing our hands over the daily slaughter taking place around us.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com