Salman Masood ISLAMABAD - Today, grief and mourning hangs heavily over the country, and specifically Peshawar, which witnessed a tragedy like no other and a terror attack with no such precedent last year on December 16.
Young, innocent school going children of Army Public School, APS, were slaughtered mercilessly in a barrage of bullets. The sheer scale and barbarity of the attack is enough to make hearts shiver and numb the minds. The unbearable burden of grief tears through the hearts of families of those who were martyred, and slices through the souls of those who survived.
The students who miraculously survived cannot shake off the dread and horror of those moments: the staccato of gunfire, the clunking sound of bullet magazines, the cries and shrieks of children. What happened within the confines of APS on December 16, 2014 will remain etched in the collective consciousness of the Pakistani nation.
It was also a seminal moment. The political and military leadership vowed to fight those who had unleashed this unimaginable terror. Dec 16 was to never happen again, the country had vowed.
Today, on the occasion of the anniversary, there is remembrance and there is a reiteration of the resolve to fight terror. The civilian and military leaders say the fight will go on till the elimination of terror.
This noble desire, indeed, is the need of the hour. The anniversary is being observed with inspirational songs. These are songs that vow to teach the enemy, and the enemy's children, a lesson. But it is not revenge through blood and gore. It is to be a revenge through education. Documentaries are being aired that revisit the tragedy and in emotional, sentimental settings, re-enact and mourn that dreadful day when defenceless school children were attacked by militants armed to the teeth.
Despite the nobility and sincerity of intention, there remains a possibility of oversimplifying the narrative, which, unfortunately, could derail the whole motive behind this exercise. And, it risks skewing the direction and understanding of the battle the country finds itself mired in. The enemy will still try to annihilate us no matter how much education we provide, no matter how many schools we build. This is not a fight of literacy and illiteracy. This is a fight against religious radicalism and extremism.
Earlier this week, Punjab counterterrorism department arrested two teachers and one students of Punjab University in Lahore. Both teachers were highly qualified —one had a PhD degree from Netherlands —and yet investigators say they were active participants of the banned group Hizbut Tahrir. One of the main suspects in May 2015 Safoora attack — when dozens of Muslims belonging to the Ismaili sect were mercilessly killed inside a commuter bus in Karachi — studied from the prestigious Institute of Business Administration.
Tashfeen Malik, who along with her husband Syed Rizwan Farook, is accused to carrying out the recent San Bernardino killings in United States was also educated and a very bright student, according to her teachers and fellow class fellows.
Obviously, there can be an argument that most of the foot soldiers of the Taliban, who have been fighting the Pakistani state, are either from the backward and impoverished regions of the tribal badlands or studied from religious seminaries. But the fact is that religious radicalism and extremism cannot fit into the simple carton boxes of education and illiteracy.
The root causes of militancy are much deeper and much more complex. It is especially more complicated in Pakistan, where decades of indoctrination and glorification of a certain kind of mindset have led to widespread acceptance of such views. Extremist views have now become mainstream.
Quite often, even law enforcing authorities find themselves in a bind when they want to take certain actions but are constrained due to the fears of backlash and further galvanising the rabid elements. The country has become such a tinderbox that there seems to be no silver bullet.
There has been a constant chorus about the need to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy. And, despite the occurrence of several tragedies — APS attack being the worst — there is no singularity of view about how to go about formulating the most appropriate and the most effective response to terror.
The national response has become a mesh of confused messaging, conspiracy theories, half-hearted efforts, institutional dysfunction and conflicting narratives.
While the military has been at the forefront of the fight against terrorism, it keeps ruing the lack of meaningful reforms and followup by the civilians. The civilians, in turn, remain hobbled by the structural faults within their own system and have been unable to get their act together. Both components need to act in unison and not in a way that nullifies the effect of the other.
Dec 16 should pave the way for soul searching and course correction. While it is inevitable that emotions would be raw and sentiments would be tender today, it should also be a time to reflect and recalibrate our national response. The fight against terror would remain unsuccessful if there is selective application of law and selective action against militants of different stripes and colours.
It would also remain ineffective if militants and their sympathisers are tolerated, and inadvertently allowed to expand their tentacles. Denying them safe havens in the tribal regions remains a half success when they manage to relocate and reorganise in the urban regions. Radical elements would have to be removed from the public spaces they occupy right now. Intelligence coordination between different agencies needs to be synergised. At the societal level, the national curricula and discourse needs to have more clarity and audacity to single out the enemy.
Progressive and liberal vision of the country, as espoused by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father, would keep shrinking if sentimentality, rhetoric and oversimplification overrides concrete and determined action against religious radicalism.