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Avenging the Children of Peshawar: The Taliban’s Massacre in Peshawar Must Be Its Last | Mira Sethi and Shehrbano Taseer

18 December 2014

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The New York Times

DEC. 17, 2014

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — AT 3 p.m. on Wednesday, this city was striped with dust and light. Outside the main ward of the Lady Reading Hospital, where five teenage Muslim boys lay fighting for their lives, a Christian had come bearing roses.

“Cannot go inside!” said the officer in plain clothes.

“But these roses,” pleaded the Christian man.

“You may give these flowers to me,” said the officer. “Thank you.”

The officer turned to us. “The Christians have called off Christmas, you see,” he explained — in honor of the schoolchildren murdered here this week.

Inside the intensive care unit, 17-year-old Zunain lay on one of the beds. He had been shot six times. His green eyes — the only parts of him that could move — flitted across the wall. His mother, Mehrunnisa, waved a Cadbury’s chocolate bar in his face. He blinked it away. His toenails were crusted in dried blood.

Outside the ward, in the cold frontier air, dead bodies were being wheeled out, covered in heavy quilts. Relatives passed through the marble courtyard, checking on their sons one minute, hiding from intrusive reporters the next.

“How do you feel after a tragedy like this?” asked a reporter. “How do you feel about your country, Pakistan?”

Mehrunnisa began to weep. The camera zoomed in closer. “I would like to say ...” she said, “I would like to say nothing.”

Around 10 a.m. on Tuesday, nine militants strapped on suicide vests and marched into the Army Public School in Peshawar. They murdered 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren. A police officer at the hospital told us there was still a pen in the hand of one of the teachers when they recovered her body.

The Pakistani Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for the attack, targeted the school because it is where the sons of army personnel study. Six months ago, the Pakistani military shifted its strategy. After many years of supporting select Islamist groups to pursue certain strategic “needs” — propping up the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the ’80s, nurturing jihadists fighting against India in the ’90s, and protecting the “good” Taliban following 9/11 — the army finally decided to dismantle the “bad” Taliban. On Tuesday, the Taliban retaliated by killing 132 schoolchildren.

The massacre has sent a wave of horror across the country. For too long Pakistanis have lived in a state of denial about the presence of terror in their midst. When, in January and February 2013, twin bombings killed at least 180 Shiite Hazaras in Balochistan, the country’s response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a minority group. When, in May 2010, an Ahmadi mosque was blown up in Lahore, killing around a hundred people, the response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a minority group. When, in October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the face, the response was: This is the unfortunate targeting of a brazen schoolgirl. (She was widely labeled a C.I.A. agent.) Now, 132 innocent schoolchildren have been murdered. Will we find a way to “fit” this into a narrative, too?

Pakistan’s mainstream politicians have intentionally promoted conspiracy theories in order to thwart the possibility of developing a national consensus against terrorism. Imran Khan, the cricket star turned opposition politician, has led this charge. Until the army launched its operation, Mr. Khan had popularized a toxic narrative about the need to “talk” with terrorists. The view gained such traction in urban Pakistan that mainstream parties were loath to oppose it for fear of losing votes in the 2013 election. Mr. Khan continues to cite “corruption,” rather than the failing writ of the state, as Pakistan’s biggest ill.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his part, has displayed startling confusion in the face of an increasingly aggressive, jingoistic public. The day after the massacre, Mr. Sharif did away with Pakistan’s moratorium on the death penalty, in an effort to rouse fear among the perpetrators. But his government is famous for such cosmetic measures.

Mr. Sharif’s party thinks nothing of forging election alliances with sectarian groups. Little effort has been made to create a counterterrorism narrative or to strengthen Pakistan’s flailing police and antiterrorism courts. The leaders of banned terrorist organizations live freely in Pakistani cities, appearing on talk shows and holding large political rallies. Pakistan’s education curriculum is full of religious exhortation, while madrasas proliferate, buoyed by Saudi largess.

When asked by a reporter if he would condemn the Taliban — who had already claimed responsibility for murdering those children — Mr. Khan replied: “The situation is not yet clear. Let me reach Peshawar and ascertain the facts of the situation.”

The situation has never been clearer. It is time to dispense with delusions of threats from “foreign forces,” and the idea that our problems are elaborate conspiracies hatched by others. Our government does not need to “talk” with the Taliban. It needs to prosecute them.

Mira Sethi, a former assistant books editor at The Wall Street Journal, is a writer, and Shehrbano Taseer is a journalist. Both are based in Lahore.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 18, 2014, on page A39 of the New York edition with the headline: Avenging the Children of Peshawar.


The above article from The New York Times is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use