As we chose to look away

December 21, 2014

The Peshawar massacre and killings before that

As we chose to look away

Ismail was barely 10. When the firing started, he did not know what to make of it. But the sound of gunshots kept growing and people around him started collapsing, blood spurting from their bullet riddled bodies. His freshly washed clothes, which his mother had put on him that day, were soaked in blood. The firing would not stop. It just would not stop. The blood around him kept growing in a puddle. Every single promise that he had been raised on collapsed. Was the blood his? Was it of the person killed next to him? Someone picked him up and ran. People around him continued to die. The stench of blood and body parts severed by a suicide bomb remain etched in his memory.

Is your heart broken? Now imagine that Ismail is Ahmadi. Or Christian. Or Shia. Or a Hindu. Does your reaction change?

What I described above was not Peshawar on December 16. It was Lahore when Ahmadi community suffered attacks in Garhi Shahu and Model Town. Ismail’s mother had sent him to pray believing that places of worship (mosques, churches, temples, synagogues), just like schools, embody the promise of life and not the mortal threat to a child.

Many of us hoped against all available evidence that a day such as December 16, 2014 in Peshawar would never come. Some of us warned that the blood soaked arrival of such a day was inevitable. Most of us, however, pretended that the threat would go away.

A few years ago, schools in Punjab closed for an ‘early’ winter-break. The reason? Threats of attacks from TTP and other militant groups. My nephew, he was 6 at the time, was never told the reason for an early vacation. His parents, like thousands of others, were worried yet helpless. The state of Pakistan was in the same boat as them: worried yet helpless, hoping that the worst would not come to pass. But on December 16 2014, it did.

Some have termed it Pakistan’s "9/11", others have said that this is a turning point. There have been calls suggesting that "enough is enough". The Prime Minister has lifted the moratorium on the carrying out of capital punishment (death penalty) against those convicted of terrorism. The nation is, apparently and finally, now united. And yet, I suggest to you, all of this represents the problem and not a solution.

The brazenness of the attack in Peshawar was and remains horrific and brutal. The chosen target shows a repulsive heartlessness towards human suffering and a vile desire to inflict maximum pain. Yet we must not pretend that there is anything new about this. Only the perceived impact has increased--not the underlying hate-filled ideology or its aims. And yet for years we have had TTP apologists in mainstream politics legitimise murderous violence.

No one should forget the Peshawar massacre. But no one should forget the killings of Pakistani children, soldiers, teachers, health workers, policemen and politicians before Peshawar either.

The children of Pakistan have been murdered in cold blood before. Mothers across Pakistan, just like those in Peshawar on December 16, have sent children on their way before -- only to receive them in blood soaked coffins. It happened in Garhi Shahu and Model Town when Ahmadis were killed--tens of children butchered among them. Dozens of children belonging to the Christian community were killed and injured in an attack on a church in Peshwar. Members of the Shia/Hazara community have been killed in targeted violence. Teenagers belonging to these communities have been called out by name, or identified by last names, and slaughtered--literally slaughtered--on highways in Pakistan. Murtaza Haider and his father, Dr. Haider, were gunned down in broad daylight in Lahore. That mother too watched her son smile for the last time that morning.

Parents want to remember their children with their smiles--not the roads or places where children breathed their last. They want to spend years wiping tears off kids’ cheeks and teaching them to laugh again--rather than cleansing blood off their children before burial. This happened in Peshawar on December 16 but it also happened dozens of times before. Why have we looked the other way for so long? I do not mean to suggest that grief of one can be equated with or weighed against that of another--absolutely not -- but the bigger picture is that such tragedies have repeatedly occurred. Our children, soldiers, policemen, rangers, teachers, health workers, politicians have been targeted again and again.

What I am saying is disturbing. It breaks my heart to even write this -- but this has happened, is happening and in all likelihood will continue to happen.

We must avenge Peshawar but not because we see it as a red line that was crossed. That line was crossed years ago by our enemies. And we need to make that clear. We should have made that clear a long time ago.

As tragic as December 16, 2014 is it cannot be treated as Pakistan’s "9/11"-- that would mean you see the thousands of children killed before this as lesser Pakistanis.

Lifting the moratorium on the death penalty is a political move -- that is all it should be seen as. It is not a cure or even part of a solution. Many people convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (because of the ridiculously broad definition of terrorism) have nothing to do with terrorism. People have been charged under the ATA for everything from arson involving personal grudges to destroying property in a protest. "Killing them all" is always a tempting solution -- except that it does not work.

We now hear statements that even "sympathisers" of TTP and terrorists will be targeted. This too is rhetoric and need not be taken seriously. The very next day after the Peshawar massacre, members of the far right held the TTP blameless and put the blame on, wait for it, India. Was that "sympathy" for TTP? Is Imran Khan’s apologist stance "sympathy"? Will a human rights activist’s argument that due process should be followed by termed "sympathy"? That is all speech and whom you prosecute is a difficult question -- it cannot be answered by rhetoric. Yet we continue to pretend that this is possible.

Now that we are telling Afghanistan and ISAF to hand over "terrorists who attack our citizens", how will we treat those we have been accused of protecting? If we are threatening "hot pursuit" across borders to bring to justice those who attacked our citizens, where does that leave us if India decides to attack groups allegedly responsible for Mumbai terror attacks?

We need to treat this as an actual war on multiple fronts--fought not just with weapons but ideas. Our enemies are utilising what we taught them: an idea propagated effectively has a life of its own. It cannot be imprisoned or blown up or executed. We need to remember this as we take this war forward.

We need to target those attacking our soil, soldiers and children but we also need to promote ideas and speech that guard against hatred and exclusion on the basis of religion.

No one should forget the Peshawar massacre. But no one should forget the killings of Pakistani children, soldiers, teachers, health workers, policemen and politicians before Peshawar either. And no one should pretend that they did not see the Peshawar massacre coming.

It happened because we chose to look away while our flag was being soaked in blood.

As we chose to look away