As far as terrorist attacks go, the one on the Karachi airport stands out for its brazenness. However, the surprise and shock at the incident is something that is hard to make sense of. Grief and concern? Yes, we should feel that. We must feel that. But surprise and shock that this occurred? There is no reason for it. In a country where the military’s headquarters have been attacked twice in broad daylight, where police-stations and military check-posts have been blown up at will, why should this come as a surprise?
None of this is meant to downplay the bravery and sacrifice of the men and women who, each time, have stood up to the attackers. But the pattern here is not something that we can miss. States do not survive by sheer will or rhetoric alone. Capacity and ideas that can take on the state’s enemies matter far more. Terrorists cannot be defeated by the rhetoric of our ‘impregnable defence’. No building in this country is impregnable at the moment. That is a fact. The fact that the parliament has not been attacked yet is more a case of a lack of will on the part of terrorists rather than our tactical supremacy.
The attack on the Karachi airport should be a stark reminder to the federal government that all its economic planning and rhetoric of development rests on a basic presumption: that people will have physical security while engaging in commerce. If that is missing, then no amount of fiscal or monetary planning will give the economy the boost it so desperately needs.
The state’s legislation against counter-terrorism has not received nods from all. To be fair, people have played politics with it as well. But there is no doubt that the state itself has not done a good enough job of marketing its anti-terror legislation and, more importantly, its significance. Involving the experts along with lawyers, public intellectuals and human rights organisations is immensely important — rather than harping on the fact that we need something brutal and fast.
Once a segment of public opinion supports anti-terror measures vetted by a cross-section of the stakeholders (including the general public) even unpopular measures will be a lot easier to pass. But most of the campaigning for passing anti-terror legislation has by-passed the general public. The federal government is clearly underestimating the role of the voice of public reason in all this. It must reach out to the media and use its own state-controlled media to make its case.
Consider the issue of foreign terrorists. We now know that terrorists from Uzbekistan played a central role in the first attack on the Karachi airport. The legislation till now has been unsure of how to deal with the issue of foreign terrorists.
The Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, 2013, finally began the debate of addressing this question by referring to an ‘Enemy Alien’. But this does not settle the question. Article 4 of the Constitution accords the right to ‘enjoy the protection of law and to be treated in accordance with law’ even to persons ‘for the time being in Pakistan’.
Now, how does the Federation intend on interpreting this for purposes of future legislation? Does this protection extend only to foreigners who are lawfully within Pakistan or is this protection based not on validity of presence but only on presence within the territorial boundaries of the state?
If you are a civil liberties lawyer, you would argue the latter — the argument being that the constitution binds the state, regardless of the status of the foreigner in Pakistan. If you work for the federal government, you would be well within reason to argue the former. You would argue, as others have done, that the constitution is not a suicide pact and the state must differentiate between foreigners who are within our borders legally and those without any right to be here. Or is there a third interpretation? That even those foreigners who are legally in Pakistan lose constitutional protection once they turn into enemies of the state? This would be the most dangerous. And I hope that better sense prevails.
The discourse in the aftermath of the Karachi attacks has been fuelling xenophobia again. There has been no shortage of reports and insinuations that, directly or indirectly, are blaming India. The state, for its sake, must counter the extent to which this discourse is going since this weakens the state and its capacity to react. Granted that most of us do not have access to intelligence reports and we do not know for sure what another country’s spy agency is up to. But this cannot and must not change the fact that terrorism is also a home-grown problem, regardless of its sponsorship from other quarters.
This acknowledgment that we must fight this menace and do it now rather than later can only be cultivated by the government — and the federal government has a leading role to play in this.
Acknowledging terrorism as a home-grown problem will not make it go away. It will not lead to a halt in attacks. As Pakistanis we must accept that facing terrorism, and increasing amounts of it in cities, is our fate for the next few years. But if we do not start pushing back now, we will collapse. The elites may find this laughable but history tells us that when states collapse, they do so in weeks if not months. Of course the whole time that things build up to the collapse, most states console themselves that it is all under control.
But things are not under control. Karachi attacks are the latest reminder of this. The damage control must begin now.