The attack on the PNS Mehran naval base was another reminder that, though tanks do not crush the gravel of our streets and our young men do not queue to be drafted, we are a country at war.
However, it was the twin suicide bombings that struck the Shabqadar paramilitary academy on May 13th that held true to the morbid but steady rhythm of ebbs and strikes in this unique and terrible and seemingly endless war. An in this conflict, there is nothing so symbolically conspicuous, or so practically potent, as the suicide bomber.
The bombings are deadly, but the idea is terrifying: of an enemy that gleefully commits their own life, not as a risk but as a certainty, in a mission to kill as many innocents as possible.
There are some who say that no faction that resorted to any form of suicide attack has ever won a conflict. They say this because they do not understand this new war. This enemy has no overarching goals that are remotely possible to achieve, and they have no headquarters we can storm. There will never be an instrument of surrender to this war, never a final push over the top that will win the critical territory. If and when this war ends, it will be neither with a bang or a whimper, but with a deep and slow silence in which our sighs will ring out like gongs.
Over time, would-be bombers have been captured, and children who were being raised to be bombers recovered. Both have yielded precious insights.
The Sunday Times in 2008 spoke to a Palestinian bomber identified only as ‘S’ whose vest failed to detonate, and who survived the subsequent firefight. The testimony he gives is more chilling for its quiet earnestness than any blood curdling war cry. He claims he had no doubt whatsoever that being selected for martyrdom was an impossibly high honour that seemed to instantly breach the walls separating him and his fellow chosen from paradise.
“The path to paradise.” A unique twist to an old marketing trick, to promise what you cannot possibly deliver. The hitch is that while con artists can flee, conventional silver tongues are dulled by the fact that, demonstrably, no brand of toothpaste will make you attractive to the opposite sex if you were not already and no brand of tea will settle a cloud of domestic bliss over your home. Conveniently, however, no one who was been disappointed by terrorists about their claims of paradise is in any condition to say so.
A marketer soon learns his audience. It is why the claim about the 72 virgins is made far more loudly and often than the claim about rivers of milk and honey. It would be folly, however, to believe the frustrations that fuel a suicide bomber are universally sexual in nature. These are young men, sometimes of privilege and often of ideals, bursting with the righteous fury of youth. Uninterested in taking the long view, they live and die for instant gratification, ever the weakness of young men.
In 2005, Time magazine ran a piece featuring a 20-year-old Iraqi named “Marwan” who claimed the day his name was put up on the volunteers list for suicide missions was the happiest in his life, and that he could not wait to die and attain paradise. He prayed for all these things, but, he said, prayed more for what was most important: that many Americans died with him.
It is not a hate easily imaginable, because it is neither hot, like a fury that seizes and spends us in a matter of minutes or hours or days, nor the cold rage of a long and calculated programme of revenge, the icy wrath closing in on its target step by meticulous step.
It is lukewarm, a hate that has seeped in so utterly that it has become normal, everyday, mundane; a constant white noise that can no longer be heard. This hate is unquestioned and nearly inexhaustible.
So how do we stop them? In the short term, no measure will protect us. Here in Pakistan we have scattered roadblocks like confetti on a map. But a man willing to kill himself for a mission will play close attention to the details. A security net spread so wide as ours cannot possibly defend the nation without paralysing it. We have seen that determined bombers — and they are by nature determined — have breached the most secure of installations, whether civilian or military. The bitter truth is: once a suicide bomber is on the field, we have lost. Barring a miraculous stroke of fortune, once that man steps forth on that fateful day with determination and ordnance, lives will be lost, confidence shattered, and the war will continue.
We must, therefore, shift our focus to the long term. Terrorism is not an entity with a head that can be chopped off, like conventional armies. Nor is it like a plant, which can with sufficient force be uprooted from the ground. Terrorism is a plague of weeds. Small things and contemptuous, but hardy and incredibly destructive. So long as they find friendly soil, they will continue to thrive.
We must resolve ourselves to undertake great tasks if we are to overcome this breed of warrior. This includes the mass expansion of true education (as opposed to brainwashing) and a socio-economic policy that does not reduce the poor to a state of desperation, where they sell their children to terrorists (the going rate was reportedly about $ 10,000 per child in 2009, quadruple the average income in the country). It includes a systematic targeting of supporting logistical actors (for instance, those who make the suicide jackets) who fear consequences, which the bombers themselves do not.
We must abandon our cheap war with India, which has cost us so dearly, and cut loose non-state actors, whether they call themselves mujahideen or the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). We can no longer make impossible justifications for terrorists because they call themselves Muslims, and for training camps because they call themselves madrassas. These insults to every idea of the divine should infuriate us further.
We must stave off those fateful days, and ensure those men who would otherwise have stepped forth to destroy lack both the means and the motive to do so.
The writer is a Lahore-based freelance columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] link