More security, less safety

May 03,2016

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There was a heartbreakingly sad news story from Karachi recently. A private security guard shot dead an 11-year-old boy, who was wearing a monster mask and had tried to scare him.

As a father myself, I can’t begin to imagine what the poor child’s parents must have gone through. Nothing can bring the innocent and lively Ali Hassan back, but we can leverage the shock of the incident to finally do something about a sector that I have been wary of since long: private security firms.

Private security is part of an all-too-familiar dialectic. The state’s inability to provide a particular standard of education has led to private educational institutions. Its inability to provide a requisite health infrastructure has led to private hospitals and clinics. So, a failure on the part of the state to provide another public good – safety – to its citizens, would definitely spur on private security businesses.

The security sector, however, is a tad trickier than the health and education sectors. Because even the most capitalist, libertarian and laissez faire state is supposed to have what political scientists call a ‘monopoly on violence’. Developing countries lose this monopoly, occasionally, to miscreants or insurgents, but are always trying to regain it. By allowing an unfettered private security business, the state is shirking one of its most basic duties.

True, there are some individuals that have a greater need for security, even in the developed world, where states otherwise have effective and proactive law-enforcement systems. But those states are ever vigilant about not letting private security slide into vigilantism. Throughout the history of the human species, the best of us have picked up arms and the worst of us have picked up arms. Unfortunately, the latter outnumber the former.

Pakistan is no exception. There have been several instances here of security firms hiring criminals as guards. This might sound a bit funny and simplistic but – barring individuals who have seen military or police service or those who come from the tribal areas, where guns are somehow wedded to the culture – a deft familiarity with weapons is a bit suspicious.

Some of the firms have actually been hiring guards who haven’t even gone through the most basic of training. A simpleton with a gun just might turn out to be even more dangerous than a criminal with one. Contrary to what you might think, the lesser the grit an individual has seen, the likelier he is to actually shoot his weapon. Those who are comfortable with their weapons are known to hold their fire and keep their composure.

There is also a lot of exploitation of the poor guards who work for the security firms, with many getting less than even the government-sanctioned minimum wage. And, often, even having those diminutive wages delayed.

From Hollywood celebrities to top politicians and business executives, everyone who is anyone, in the developed world, depends on personal bodyguards, but their personal protection mechanisms follow strict regulations. The bodyguards there are always well-trained and are rarely picked randomly by the clients.

The private guards in Pakistan should all be vetted by the government. For those who do not have a military or police background, there should be training programmes by private security companies that should be evaluated at the end by government regulatory bodies. There are universities abroad that offer specialised training in the field. Universities and technical/vocational institutions here, in collaboration with the interior ministry and the provincial home departments, should develop curricula to help educate a new crop of bodyguards, crowd controllers and other personnel. The course to become a bodyguard, for instance, there should be a six-month certification. The more reputable of the firms should set up their own training institutes.

But these aforementioned regulations should not all be clamps on security firms. Once the firms’ employees and training processes are vetted properly, a measure of relaxation should be given to them in certain areas. For instance, at the moment, private companies cannot keep automatic weapons, whereas the evil doers have all sorts of weapons, most famously, the ever reliable AK-47. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Then there is the prohibition on weapons and the size of one’s entourage, due to district administration directives intended to maintain public order. My own uncle, the late Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal (a former MPA), needed an entourage of guards, given how he, much like the rest of my family, was in a decades-long war with sectarian forces in our hometown. He was killed in a cowardly attack on the one day he decided to move around without his security detail in respect of Section 144, which had been imposed in Jhang.

Ali Hassan’s example is a case for being stricter with the security firms. My uncle’s example is a case for easing up on them. Both of them are valid cases. Let us find the balance.

The writer is former federal minister.

Twitter: sheikhwaqqas


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