For more than a week now, Pakistan has watched, in stunned horror, the episode of vigilante justice in Sialkot. This one unfolding on our television screens in all its gory detail. The savage murder of brothers Mughees and Muneeb, as people, including police, look on, has incensed us.
The news itself is horrifying. But the newness in the news is that this time people, the media and official authorities are moved enough to react with an outcry. That is new. And that is news.
What happened in Sialkot was ghastly in its detail, inhuman in its execution, and numbing in the reaction of those who stood by to just view (and film) the savagery. But this vigilante justice was not new. More than what happened in Sialkot, what is new is the larger national reaction to what happened in Sialkot.
The media has begun asking some important questions (even though parts of the media still peddling mere voyeurism). Government officials, starting with the Sialkot administrator but later also the police chief and the provincial and national authorities, including the Supreme Court, have moved not just to condemn but to take action. More action and better implementation is required, but public outcry has clearly worked in this case.
The opportunity in this horrible event is to turn this expression of anguish into a moment of introspection. Introspection about the attitudes towards the violence of so many in society, rather than another voyeuristic titillation about the brutality of the few.
The video sends a cold shiver up one’s spine. Not just because of what is being done to the two young brothers but also what is not being done by all the people watching this. They watch the orgy of violence in front of them seemingly unmoved. Indeed, some seem to be cheering on. Cameras and mobile phones keep flashing on the screen as if their users were spectators at a sporting event. And these are ordinary people: including the police, traders going about their regular business, ordinary citizens, and even children.
It is important, but also rather easy, to express outrage at the savagery of those who committed the brutal act. It is equally important, and much more difficult, to ask how we–and by “we,” I do not mean the government or authorities, I mean “we” as in me and you–have all contributed to a tolerance of violence which has, in turn, bred this brutality.
The point here is unpopular, but an important one. You cannot create a society where you encourage and accept some forms of violence, and then act all surprised and outraged when that same violence gets out of hand. The violence we condone will breed the violence we condemn.
Let me be clear. I have no sympathy for dramatic analyses which suggest that the murderers of Sialkot represent the entirety of Pakistan’s 175 million people. They do not. They are the exception and they are the extreme. Yes, exceptions and extremes exist in every society.
But the people who are watching on as the murders happen cannot be exceptions and extremes. They are, indeed, the faces of everyday Pakistan. And that, I think, is what is sending the cold shiver down our spine. The validation of violence that we see in their faces is a validation of violence we have seen too many times ourselves. No society must ever be judged by the extreme and the fanatic amongst it. But every society should be held responsible for how it deals with and reacts to those extreme and fanatic acts.
It is indeed solace that there is outrage, and widespread outrage. But it is also true, and maybe even more so, that the voyeuristic element still dominates the discourse. Most true of all is the fact that those who were at the scene seemed not outraged at all. The outrage of the rest of us, rightly placed as it may be, comes way too late to be of much use to Mughees and Muneeb.
These two young men–boys, really–were killed in mob anger. But they were also killed by mob anger. The anger that killed them was indeed extreme and fanatic and, thankfully, unusual. But it was an anger bred in a society that seems to forever seethe in its own anger. Too many people seem too angry, at too many things, too much of the time. Even in everyday discourse, we come across as angry and on edge.
Just turn on your television set and listen to any political discussion. You will not find any discussion. You will find arguments, accusations, attacks, and above all, anger. Anger enough to attack each other’s integrity. It is not enough to say that we disagree with someone, it seems necessary to inflict pain on those we disagree with – if not physical violence, then the emotional violence of words purposefully constructed to hurt. The same venom is now spilled all over the print media too. And anger when mixed with a validation of violence and a disregard, disrespect and distrust of all institutions of state, becomes a really deadly cocktail.
Maybe as we angrily express outrage over what happened in Sialkot we should also take a moment to think about how we–and, again, by “we,” I do not mean the government or authorities, I mean “we” as in me and you –have become such an angry and violence-prone society (maybe “mob” is a better word): violence in the name of religious difference, violence in the name of politics, violence in the name of ideology, and violence even in the name of justice!
The writer is the Frederick S Pardee professor of Global Public Policy, director of the Pardee Center at Boston University and founding editor of Pakistaniat.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org