Danse macabre - the dance of death - was a medieval theme fostered by 14th century plagues and wars. The most famous work inspired by it was a 15th century set of 51 paintings by German artist Hans Holbein. The series depicts the skeletal figure of death surprising its victims as they go about their daily lives.
In the recent Karachi heatwave the over-flowing Karachi mortuaries and hospitals only evoked barbs and blame game. Jam Mehtab, the Sindh health minister, callously declared that 65 percent who perished were drug-addicts and homeless people.
On September 26, 2011, a bus crammed with 108 students and staff of Millat Grammar School Faisalabad met a harrowing accident at Kallar Kahar. Thirty-five people died; 29 of them were schoolchildren. The post-tragedy investigations revealed that all bus documents were forged including its route permit and fitness certificate. The driver had a fake licence and the bus was never a bus at all; a 1981 model truck sold as scrap, it had been ‘transformed’ into a bus. As for the school itself; it was illegally constructed and totally unfit for housing a school.
On May 16, 2015, 6 siblings of a family, aged 1 to 12 years perished in a fire at their home in Lahore, the ‘Paris’ of Pakistan. The distraught family alleged that with no response from the vaunted Rescue 1122, they rushed to a nearby fire-station. By the time the empty fire-tenders were filled with water and the antiquated vehicle pushed to get it started, the fire had taken its extremely tragic toll. These avoidable tragedies alone epitomise the gross/criminal failure of the most basic of our enforcement systems.
The APS Peshawar tragedy evoked yet another false dictum; ‘We shall not forget’. We naively thought a tragedy of such agonising proportions could melt the heartless; but that was not to be. In his book ‘The Empathic Civilisation’, Jeremy Rifkins insists that human beings are ‘Homo Empathicus’; defined by the ability to empathise. Apathy has seeped through the thoroughly cracked facade of governance into the very fabric of our society. Dr Jean Lipman, a scholar on leadership traits, defines toxic leaders as those whose “dysfunctional personal characteristics generate enduring poisonous effects on the nations they lead.” Our ‘toxic leaders’ have ensured that we morph into being ‘Homo Apathicus’.
Of all the imperatives that forge a nation, nothing is a more potent recipe for its degeneration and disintegration than one in which human life becomes worthless. Emperor Humayun ordered the nobility to pay Nizam Saqqa homage worthy of a king. As for Nizam, in a bid to be remembered, he issued coins made of his leather mashk and declared them legal tender! As our rulers remain mired in their brick and mortar – multi-billion metro and highway – mindsets (with unemployment at a 13-year high), the sanctity of a common man’s life lies essentially forsaken. The apathy is as unbelievable as it is criminal.
In the wake of the Safoora bus carnage, the prime minister addressed his summoned political kith and kin. Seated in resplendent glory; tables adorned with flowers, food and beverages, the PM muttered a few words about the snuffed away lives at Safoora Goth. Over with the ritual, he then had the gall to ask the participants to have their ‘khana’ (hundreds of children perished in Thar for a mere morsel) during the presentation on the CPEC.
Since ancient times rituals have been used as a tool to demonstrate control. Each tragedy today is followed by a ritualistic charade of condemnations, inquiries, committees and APCs. With each ‘saneha’, our ever-coiffed political choreographers of false contrition, of dyed hair and moustaches, silk ties or starched clothes, increasingly bulging waistlines and ruddy cheeks, remain callously unmoved and criminally unfazed. No words could be more apt than the Scott Fitzgerald line, “He was so terrible that he was no longer terrible, only dehumanized.”
No government, system or institution is perfect. However, be it the London/Spain train bombings, America’s 9/11, the Sri Lankan LTTE insurgency, the Belsan school siege in Russia that left 334 including 186 children dead or the murder of 77 by Anders Breivik in Norway; tackling the aftermath to ensure they are never repeated demands a government’s empathy. Here, the greatest ‘saneha’ (before the Axact saga) to befuddle the minds of our democrats was as to how a cockroach managed to defile the sanctity of a hungry Naveed Qamar’s sandwich within the pristine walls of our hallowed parliament.
Pakistan, with its geo-strategic location, has globally the second largest coal and fifth largest gold and copper reserves. With the largest integrated irrigation network, we are one of the largest producers of milk, cotton, wheat and rice; and we have one of the largest pools of human resource. Our 1046 kilometre coastal line has a wind power potential to generate 43000MW of energy; we are also one of seven countries with nuclear power. How can a country thus blessed have an impoverished multitude (each with a debt yoke of Rs101,338) yet obscenely wealthy political elite (Asif Zardari/Nawaz Sharif alone with reported worth of more than 8 billion dollars)?
The only answer that comes to mind is that the elephant (debt liabilities at Rs19.3 trillion) is being killed for its ivory.
Today, as Nietzsche said: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters, and coldly it tells lies, and this lie drones on from its mouth; I, the state, am the people.” Miniature Pakistani flags, mere lapel pins, adorn many a chest of our political elite; the beating heart underneath seemingly throbs to the hum-dum of personal wealth, power and glory.
Once voted the most memorable movie line of all time, a quote from ‘Gone with the Wind’ has an uncaring Rhett Butler telling Scarlett O’Hara, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”. Driven by this mindset, our rulers have forged a (mesaaq-e-jamhooriat) partnership; not for the good of the common man but for the perverted interests of a few.
It is not our tragedies that shape the future; it is the abysmal response that does. The only means to our very survival, as a state and nation, is that our ‘emperors’ feel the afflictions of those ruled. It is their apathy alone that spawns the scourge of terrorism, corruption and cronyism. Empathy, the only antidote to this unholy trinity, should be the ‘enforced’ National Action Plan.
The writer is a freelance contributor.
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