Time for Pakistan to get tough on terrorism
AT 3PM on Wednesday, Peshawar 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 honour of the schoolchildren murdered here this week.
In 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?" Madam Mehrunnisa began to weep. The camera zoomed in closer. "I would like to say..." she said, "I would like to say nothing."
Around 10am 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 Taleban, 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 changed its strategy. After many years of supporting select Islamist groups to pursue certain strategic "needs" - propping up the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, nurturing extremists fighting against India in the 1990s, and protecting the "good" Taleban following 9/11 - the army finally decided to dismantle the "bad" Taleban. On Tuesday, the Taleban 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 last year, twin bombings killed at least 180 Shi'ite 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 100 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 labelled a Central Intelligence Agency 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 popularised 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 last year's 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 counter-terrorism narrative or to strengthen Pakistan's flailing police and anti-terrorism courts. The leaders of banned terrorist organisations live freely in Pakistani cities, appearing on talk shows and holding large political rallies. Pakistan's education curriculum is full of religious exhortation, while madrasahs proliferate, buoyed by Saudi largesse.
When asked by a reporter if he would condemn the Taleban - 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 Taleban. It needs to prosecute them.
The writers are based in Lahore, Pakistan.