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.