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Moment that mattered: The Pakistani Taliban attacks a school and kills 133 children

Supporters of Pakistan Awami Tehreek hold up posters to condemn Tuesday's Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, as they participate in a rally Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014 in Lahore, Pakistan. The school massacre on Tuesday horrified Pakistanis across the country. The militants, wearing suicide vests, climbed over the fence into a military-run school, burst into an auditorium filled with students and opened fire. The bloodshed went on for several hours until security forces finally were able to kill the attackers. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

The Taliban’s attack on an army school in Peshawar was something far more diabolical than anything that had taken place in the name of terrorism in Pakistan before. As is quite usual when an attack happens, I found out through social media. It starts off with maybes – and every time you hope it’s just a rumour, just nonsense. I read that there had been an attack in Peshawar, then we were told it was an attack on a school, then the details started pouring in. There is a lot of cynicism here because so many terrorist attacks happen every week and sometimes people don’t even talk about them any more. But when the news started coming in that children were being shot at point blank range, a sense of shock took over, even for the most cynical people.

There is not just one Taliban: there are many extremist groups out there. Some are clustered together as Taliban, others work individually. In the past, apologists often tried to rationalise the extremist violence as if the attackers had some economic, political or social reason for it. Whenever a brutal attack on civilians would happen, politicians would go on television and say it was happening because of strikes from the US, or because of poverty. But attacks on civilians were happening before the drones came around. And while Karachi has one of the country’s biggest slums, which does see violence, the gangs who perpetrate it don’t start blowing up masses of people just because of a bad economic situation.

The Peshawar attack was a turning point for Pakistan. The apologists don’t come on TV any more and for the first time we’ve seen urban middle class people badmouthing the Taliban on TV. That type of footage had never been shown before either because people were too scared or because when they did say something negative to the cameras, television channels were too scared to show it. These images have had a domino effect. A few days after the Peshawar attack, people gathered outside an Islamabad mosque where a radical cleric had openly supported the extremists. They stood there until the cops registered a case against the guy. These sort of protests, big and small, have increased and take place almost every day in every major city in Pakistan now.

“I hope that we’re able to get rid of this Frankenstein’s monster that we have been creating for so many years now”

The attack has also changed the narrative within the military. They were being accused of playing a double game and not being very active. Now, they are more committed. That’s important because the military in Pakistan is very strong. Pakistanis tend to believe the army more than they believe their politicians. Pakistan’s ruling political party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has been pressured by the public and the military to speak up. Formerly, politicians didn’t want to take that chance, because any political party that spoke out was just cut to pieces. The last government was brutalised, quite a few of its members were killed. Because of that, a lot of the time all politicians did was issue condemnations. They seemed paralysed on the issue.

Now, politicians have had to hurry out legislation. There is finally a security policy on terrorism. The government has taken extra-legislative acts: military courts have been set up because the judicial system also seems paralysed by fear when it comes to convicting alleged extremists.

Three months down the line, it’s still too early to conclude exactly where this will lead. All the right moves and all the right noises are being made, but it shouldn’t just be about the interior minister holding a few press conferences and telling us they’ve arrested such and such people or closed down such and such things. The National Action Plan, on which there was a consensus from all political parties, needs to be rolled out urgently and genuine results need to be shared with the public over and over again. People have to start seeing real action being taken.

I hope that we’re able to gradually get rid of this Frankenstein’s monster that we have been creating for so many years now. Now that the Taliban hasn’t been getting the media coverage and sympathetic noises it used to generate from certain sections in society, the various different groups have turned against each other. So you never know: this monster might end up eating itself.


Nadeem Farooq Paracha is a columnist for DAWN, Pakistan’s oldest English-language newspaper (dawn.com).

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