Another day, another tragedy. Writing on the Peloponnesian War in the 5th Century BC, Thucydides famously claimed that, ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. While the quote itself refers to the unequal relationship that existed between Athens and the much weaker city-state of Melos, it could just as well be used to characterize everyday life in Pakistan. Earlier this week, the son of a former minister and several of his guards were arrested for their involvement in an incident that led to the deaths of a fifteen year old student. While the story that has been narrated in the media is far from clear, it is possible to discern a broad picture of what happened; the minister’s son was involved in a traffic accident of some description as a result of which he and his men resorted to aerial firing which ended up killing a young student who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As has been pointed out by some of the more jaded observers of contemporary Pakistani society, none of this is new or particularly surprising. It is yet another incident that illustrates the powerful gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in this country, with the transgressions of the former occurring in a context where the government and the law can do little to impede their actions. It is far too early to speculate about the events that led to the shooting earlier this week, or the course that will be taken by the police and the courts as they start to investigate this case. What is likely, however, is that the eventual outcome will be no different from cases like this in the past; as has been recently demonstrated by the pardon granted to Shahrukh Jatoi in the Shahzeb Khan murder case, there is no guarantee that justice will be done and the perpetrators of this latest round of violence will be held to account. Instead, blood money, a politicized and deeply flawed criminal justice system, and the ready availability of retainers willing to take the fall for crimes they did not commit, will all ensure that the status quo is maintained, and the interests of the powerful are protected.

One of the more popular tropes used by the rich to demonize the poor and dispossessed is that they represent the real threat to society, characterized as they supposedly are by rampant ignorance, criminality, and a lack of the ‘civilized’ values that are allegedly the preserve of the elite. Time and again, the downtrodden are held responsible for their own plight, with claims being made about how their sloth, shortsightedness, and lack of ability somehow accounts for the inability to advance in life. It is this same deep-rooted suspicion of the masses that often leads elements of the ‘enlightened’ elite to endorse incredibly reactionary, authoritarian politics, with all and sundry constantly being reminded of how the inherently uncivilized nature of Pakistan’s citizens implies they can only be ruled by force rather than consent.

The problem with all of this, other than the inherently dehumanizing and distasteful way in which it is framed, is that it ignores the broader context in which the rich and the poor operate. Through the advantages conferred by inherited wealth, and through connections to the state, political parties, and other institutions of power, the elite continuously benefit from their position, often at the expense of everyone else. The same system of capitalist economic development that impoverishes the masses and condemns them to lives of exploitation and alienation is the one that enables the rich to fuel the luxury spending that is currently underpinning Pakistan’s urban retail ‘revolution’, just as the clientelistic nature of the country’s politics continues to tie the electorate to ‘leaders’ who speak the language of reform but never implement it simply because they recognize it would undermine their position. The rich are actively engaged in abusing the powers at their disposal to pursue their interests and cement their status, even though the narrative that often accompanies their activities is one that extols the virtues of their hard work, talent, ambition, and innate ‘goodness’.

Inevitably, those who benefit most from their proximity to, and possession of, power are often the most blind to its effects, attributing their success to their personal attributes rather than the material basis of their institutional positon. The pride people take in their ancestry and family ‘name’, the belief that they deserve everything they have, and the notion that they are entitled to everything the world can offer them, are all hallmarks of an elite worldview that takes privilege for granted, justifies the symbolic hierarchy that separates the rich from everyone else and, perhaps most importantly of all, breeds a complete and total lack of ability to countenance anything that disrupts their lives. Traffic accidents, like the other banal trials and humiliations of routine life, are things experienced by lesser mortals; the powerful do not have to submit to the same rules as everyone else and, moreover, believe that they should not have do so either.

When the minister’s son and his guards started shooting earlier this week, they undoubtedly did so knowing that there would be no real consequences for their actions, in much the same way as there are no consequences when the entourages of the elite (inevitably comprised of black jeeps and pickup trucks) speedily flout traffic laws as they hurtle across the city. The act of firing was not simply an act of intimidation, it was also an expression of entitlement, reflective of the belief that the elite have the right to do as they please whenever and wherever they want.

It is also, however, representative of something else; small men with big guns and even bigger cars compensating for their obvious shortcomings by deluding themselves into believing crass displays of wealth and brutish demonstrations of force make them ‘very important’. For all the expensive toys, designer clothes, and fancy friends, it is difficult to disguise the hollowness and ugliness that is at the core of Pakistan’s ‘VIP’ culture. A child is dead, a casualty of a predatory worldview, devoid of empathy and compassion, that will likely claim more victims before it is finally overthrown and defeated.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS and can be contacted at hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk