Peshawar Attack, Revenge and the Role of the State

I am well aware that anything I might say about the attack on school children in Peshawar on 16 December, 2014 is going to be inadequate and in some ways pointless. The murder of children is horrific and wrong in every way and the Taliban have lowered themselves beyond anything I might have imagined. It would be nice to think that every Pakistani would unite in condemning the Taliban and all of the Taliban members who realise this is wrong will repudiate the attack and reject the leadership who seem to think it’s a justifiable response to the Pakistan army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Efforts to push the blame onto foreign fighters won’t really minimise the responsibility of the Pakistani Taliban. They clearly don’t seem to care about human lives much.

The reaction of the Pakistan state has been predictable. Three days of national mourning were declared and the event has been described as Pakistan’s mini 9/11. In some ways, that may be accurate– it’s such a shock that even now it’s hard to make sense of a group that can be so utterly callous and cruel as to murder children who were guilty of nothing more than being educated in a school that has ties to the military. Pakistan also resumed the death penalty in terrorism cases. My Twitter feed and Facebook friends almost certainly approve. Within hours of the attack, one of my FB friends was calling for all Pakistani Taliban (TTP) prisoners in custody to be summarily executed in retaliation. The comments in response to his expression of profound grief would suggest that he was not alone in wanting to see TTP members killed in revenge. On the Today programme the next day, there was a teenager whose brother had narrowly escaped alive from the school who was asked what he wanted the government to do. He said that he wanted the government to take revenge for all of the murdered children. Evidently, revenge is high priority right now.

Sadly, revenge is part of what the TTP think they are doing. Revenge doesn’t have an end point. I am certain that in this nasty war on terrorism, that was started outside Pakistan but has caused maximal suffering inside Pakistan (up to 55,000 dead by recent counts), can never end if we fix our sights on getting revenge. I was in Pakistan earlier in 2014 when the disastrous peace talks were tried and failed, so I’m not suggesting that the TTP can actually be negotiated with or that they can pretend to speak for all of the various violent insurgent groups that murder innocent people on a regular basis. But the state should be looking beyond immediate calls for revenge. Pakistan’s politicians need to be thinking about effective strategies for reducing the amount of violence and the death penalty does not correlate with low murder rates– rather the opposite, actually. If the evidence suggests that the death penalty is a poor deterrent, then the possible rationales for carrying out death penalties might be because some people are irredeemably dangerous and evil, or perhaps to alleviate the public suffering and sense of injustice. There may be TTP who are so beyond redemption that they can never be released from custody because they will always pose a danger to others. That probably isn’t the case for all members of the TTP, though in the current understandable climate of anger and sadness, they may wind up sharing the same fate as their more evil associates.

I don’t pretend to know how best to respond to such attacks. They are disheartening and appear to destroy any hope of ever seeing a peaceful Pakistan again. As much as I care about Pakistan, it isn’t my country so my opinion isn’t actually all that important. Nevertheless, I wish that I could see Pakistani leaders with vision promoting a future in which the state behaves in morally defensible ways with its citizens, regardless of how those citizens behave. The TTP deserve no sympathy or mercy, but I think they do deserve due process. On the strength of the evidence I’ve seen in recent years, I have little doubt that they have committed atrocities of such enormity that there are overwhelming reasons to despise and want to kill them. That’s the natural human reaction, but what I want from the state is a calmer and more balanced reaction that tempers people’s need to be kept safe, with society’s need to have a state that enforces the rule of law consistently. Finally, I want a state that tempers law enforcement with the knowledge that justice and the law are not one and the same thing.

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3 Responses to Peshawar Attack, Revenge and the Role of the State

  1. A writer from the East says:

    Despite Pakistan not being your country, it values your sentiments and care, more so ever.
    I also understand that its difficult for many people in the UK, or other [arts of first world to understand the collective reaction, while I am not a mother of any of the lost lives in Peshawar carnage, I do know that dead numbers have risen because many hospitalized children could not make it.
    The collective anger in Pakistan is very difficult to summarize, I think most people now realize that there is no use spinning theories of good versus bad taliban because no religion ever said to go out and massacre children for the glory of God and to do so in such a fashion, defiant and confident is basically the failure of State and all vested parties involved into the fiasco of Taliban.
    Now coming to the point of revenge, yes its not the solution but Pakistan since past 3 decades is really really let down badly by its own leaders and democratic processes. This idea of revenging and resuming death penalties is a tactic the Government is using to make us calm down, for we understood that it really is NEVER ever GOING TO eradicate terrorism and terrorists factions from our homeland BECAUSE all these years, we have seen hype and few executions, etc etc all talk and zero action.
    We understand that we are born to die and perish for the egos of our leaders along with egos of evil men sitting outside of our country colluding to destroy it for their gains.
    I find it fascinating also to see killers and terrorists in very nice and liberty availing positions in Europe, most of them are also without remorse of what they did and I am sorry to say that that’s an opposite extreme because people know they can do something and so easily get away with it, also this is very un Asian on the whole.
    The present, past governments won’t really be eradicating taliban because their political campaigns get funded by extremist groups, the military for best known to them reason does not succeed in flushing out terrorism from our country, it seems we are to understand that we are worthless race and nation in their eyes and in international community’s view.
    At the end of the day, what more is required and demanded of the Pakistani nation, because most of us live in terror and really appalling conditions, where we are dying so why not try once last time to flush out TTP etc by going for a full scale offensive which as a peace activist is very hard for me to actually imagine, but on other hand we are already dying and in a state of war but that way surely we will suffer more damage on a national scale but the result could be end of this evil tyranny and maybe we will have a possibility of rebuilding the country.
    I cannot believe I am a citizen of this country but ave to live in shadows like millions of others that are forced to bear just to carry out our normal work.
    I thank you once again for your care and compassion for Pakistan, and I really wish that we could look forward to a better future so you could come back in a happier time.

    • anthrosteve says:

      Thank you for these heartfelt words. I only hope that the leaders in Pakistan, by which I mean more than just the politicians and the military officers, will think practically about how to achieve a better future for Pakistan. The people of Pakistan deserve nothing less.

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