Watching the footage of the aftermath of the Lahore blast, it’s tragic how familiar a sight this has become across Pakistan. Too often, our national discourse been filled with angry citizens taking the law into their own hands. Before the Lahore bombings, we witnessed the gruesome lynching of two teenagers in Sialkot, a few weeks earlier Karachi erupted into flames of arson and looting following the murder of MPA Raza Haider. Prior to that, my home city of Karachi also burnt and bled after the Ashura blasts and of course, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
Scenes of citizen-led violence are becoming a common part of terror attacks in cities across Pakistan, with ordinary citizens going on fury-filled rampages of murder, arson and looting. Indeed, the violence perpetrated by ordinary citizens is causing more damage and death than the original attack – something militant groups increasingly rely on. Following the Karachi attacks, it was shown that the post-attack violence was planned and incited to further the toll of the original attacks. More disturbing than this complex planning or even the tepid response from law enforcement agencies has been the willingness of citizens to embrace this private justice and join these rampages. This willingness to embrace violence is an expression of the deep reservoirs of frustration and injustice coursing through the veins of Pakistanis.
With a galore of pundits tracing the route of this – and all other problems – to the aftermath of the Afghan war, it’s important to acknowledge our own failings as a nation in dealing with violence. Balochistan had been engulfed in the fires of insurgence long before the Afghan war, and East Pakistan even before that. The violence of the ’80s and ’90s in Karachi also had roots in grievances present long before the Afghan war. Like the angry citizens rampaging across Lahore and Karachi, these insurgencies were driven by a deep-seated frustration at injustices and a feeling – perceived or real – that those responsible would escape justice unless citizen took force into their own hands.
Now however, the visibility of force and violence across the country has made us accustomed to private justice, with citizens – or their armed guards – administering ‘justice’ on their own without involving the state. Violent footage flash on our television screens; armed guards at houses and shops, snipers guarding schools and ‘sensitive’ buildings now fortified behind layers of barriers and barbed wires. Now, it seems ‘might is right’ and the best way to deal with threats, injustice and insecurity is through weapons and force.
These weapons and the use of force are increasingly become privatised, with the populace feeling the state can’t deliver justice or keep the peace, ironically further eroding the state’s monopoly on the use of force. Events in Lahore and in Karachi have shown us a citizenry that is brimming with anger and fury, doubting justice will be served and accustomed to seeing force wielded privately. When this anger and the perception that vigilantism is acceptable in society mixes with miscreants eager to spread chaos, anarchy has always ensued.
The crucial question remains – where do we go from here? What can we learn from the anguish and anger of those setting building ablaze on Lahore’s Mall Road? What can the torching of Karachi’s Bolton Market possibly serve to teach us? In an increasingly dangerous world, threats abound. Our need for security and justice, our feelings of helplessness and anger and the visibility of violence around us cannot allow us to continue taking violence and force into our own hands. Regardless of how senseless this violence may seem and how little this mob action may appear to have to do with justice, as long as we continue to privatise armed resistance at any level, and deny justice at all levels, the risk of citizens being seduced into using weaponry and vigilante justice, lingers. Gandhi was right that, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” – our challenge must be to strengthen the vision of justice.
Faris Islam is studying political science and history at Tufts University, Massachusetts.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.