KARACHI - On Tuesday night, as the death toll from the Peshawar attack continued to rise, I texted my mother, who turned 55 this week, that we should probably cancel our dinner reservation. The country’s cinemas announced that they were closing across the country; wedding celebrations were canceled. People on Facebook blackened their profile pictures. The Express Tribune, the newspaper I work for, changed its website to monochrome. Radio stations dropped their playlists of generic pop music and were playing a more somber selection. Pakistan, the prime minister announced, is in mourning.
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In the city where I live, Karachi, there were a few vigils in the evening. Crowds gathered at major intersections holding candles. Across the border, Indians showed solidarity with Pakistanis by trending #IndiaWithPakistan, building on the momentum gathered by the extraordinary acts of solidarity that Australians showed towards their Muslim population after their own hostage crisis in a Sydney café.
Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, better known for accusing Pakistan of waging a proxy war of terrorism in India, expressed sorrow and dismay over the attack in a series of tweets. Malala Yousufzai, the recent Nobel Peace Prize winner and education activist, herself a victim of the Taliban’s war against education, said she was heartbroken and announced her intention to return to Pakistan next year, despite the Taliban’s repeated threats to target her again.
Of course, one cannot expect the same degree of soul-searching and reflection from our venerable politicians. There was nothing new or different about the way they reacted to the massacre. They roundly “condemned” it, which is what they do whenever something they disapprove of happens; it has become an exhausted joke. Despite their condemnations, few were willing to name the culprits, the Pakistani Taliban, for fear of reprisal attacks.
Blaming “hidden hands” and “foreign plots” is easier and gets more political traction. Some used the attack as an opportunity for political point-scoring, blaming the attack on whichever political party they didn’t like. (To his credit, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan who has been protesting since August against the government for alleged rigging in last year’s elections, postponed a rally in Islamabad, the capital, scheduled for December 18.)
There were the usual calls for action, the usual criticism of the government’s erstwhile policy to negotiate with militants rather than military confrontation, and clichéd references to the attack as “cowardly” and “heinous,” vacuous words that had lost all meaning long before the Peshawar attack.
Another aspect of the attack that remained the same was callous media reporting. Parents were being asked how they felt, knowing that their children were dead; pictures of open coffins and weeping family members next to them were rife; talk show discussions over who’s to blame and what’s to be done next devolved into raucous shouting matches, as they always do. The more harrowing the account of the traumatized child, the more hits it will get. Many in the media, I’m sure, thought this was their moment.
Many commentators asked whether this was a “watershed” moment in Pakistan’s fight against militancy; the “tipping point.” Given Pakistan’s murky past of coddling, funding and training militant groups, is this the moment that everything changes? History rarely works in such a linear fashion. The response to brazen terrorist attacks, whether they are on high-end hotels or vegetable markets, has always been public outrage and a hope that the government would do something about it complemented by government inertia. It’s the same after this one; our hearts are just a lot heavier than before.