The mass killing at Peshawar and the end of the PTI sit-in seemed to come together when PTI chief Imran Khan visited the Army Public School to condole with the survivors. The national outpouring of grief showed that the militants carrying out the massacre had done something that badly backfired. Apart from attacking the military, which is not popular, children were also killed, something universally frowned upon in a child-loving culture.

The militant argument that revenge was being wreaked on the military for Operation Zarb-e-Azb was tacitly accepted, and the rulers of the country, both military and civilian, showed a strange similarity to the militants by engaging in wreaking revenge through the carrying out of executions. It should be remembered that these are executions long delayed, and the moratorium placed on them by the previous government is not just because the PPP objects to the death sentence, which it does because its founding Chairman was executed, but also because the European Union demanded it.

However, while the militant action had only a tenuous link with the military, with some of those killed being the children or spouses of military personnel, the executions had none. Those executed did include those who had made an attempt on the life of Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, or the attack on GHQ. However, this again implied revenge, even though those sentenced were not tried as subjects of any past or future revenge, but for the offences they were accused of. That they had not been executed even though found guilty, and even though all avenues of appeal had been exhausted, was a sign of the weakness of the state, and it did not need a school massacre to make sure these people were executed.

One disadvantage of the revenge approach is that it does not allow for the rule of law. The rule of law is an Islamic concept, as well as Western, and the militants need to be held to it. The concept of retaliation, or qisas, has been upheld in the Holy Quran, but that is as a punishment. The determination of guilt is to be carried out by a trial court. By that standard, those guilty of killing women, children and other non-combatants in the tribal areas could not be executed, because they had not been tried, then their children and wives could not be punished. This should also take account of the fact that the families of the guilty are liable for punishment only under a system of collective punishment, not under the rule of law. Under the rule of law, there can be no punishment of those who have not committed an offence, no matter how closely, or by what means, they are related to the offender.

A symptom of the mentality of the revenge-based legal system prevailing, is the police tactic, virtually amounting to standard operating procedure, of arresting entire families of a suspect when they cannot get him to surrender. Therefore, the executions have a certain macabre inevitability, and incidentally, increase the chances of being right for those accusing the intelligence agencies of backing the militants.

If the agencies have backed the militants, would they have any role in the massacre? Even if the answer is in the negative, the question is a fair one. It is unlikely in the extreme, not so much as because the agencies also consist of human beings, as because this massacre was so obviously wrong. However, the attempts to include the military in the haloes of the children’s martyrdoms smack of the agencies at work. According to this narrative, the attack on the children should be viewed as an attack on the military.

Imran may have gone to express his sympathies, but he has got a number of strikes against him. True, the attack occurred in a military school in the cantonment, and the military is responsible for security, but the cantonment is in the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the only province which elected a PTI provincial government in 2013. Also, he muted demands that the administration of the school and the cantonment take some responsibility for the massacre, owes at least something to his own Islamabad sit-in, and the demand that the Prime Minister resign during an investigation into the 2013 election. His connection to the military has long been suspected, with former PTI President Javed Hashmi alleging that the military was behind the sit-in, and this impression was further strengthened by his ending the sit-in on the advice of a general.

That he seemed to want the sit-in to end, that it had become a millstone around his neck, may have made him want an excuse, and the Peshawar massacre provided it to him. If the agencies have indeed any control over the militants, the massacre was carried out by people who were rebelling against the agencies, who would not want to profit another entity controlled (as alleged) by them. It might be tempting to accuse Imran of some complicity, but that would be to ignore that, as a politician, he would not need such a huge excuse to end the sit-in. This would also assume, most probably incorrectly, that militant organisations take orders rather than being persuaded. Perhaps this misapprehension comes from the fact that the organisations allegedly doing the ordering are military, with a culture of orders being both given and obeyed as a matter of routine.

However, Imran left off the sit-in having raised questions. There is the obvious one about military involvement, but what is the fate of the election reforms he set out to achieve? It raises questions about why it is possible to consider military involvement in politics, which is less a reflection of those who have benefited from military rule, as of the failure of democratic governments to solve the problems of the people. At present, the main failure of the government appears to be that of preserving the life of citizens, including their children. One reason for the present anger is that all parties appear so feckless. If the PTI holds the KP reins, the massacre occurred in a federal institution, under the PML(N). The PPP, which holds the Sindh government, is not over the deaths in Thar. New or old, left or right, no party seems to be taking care of the children.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.