By Karthik Shankar:
Blood splattered textbooks, tattered pieces of uniforms and stray shoes are a common sight in the media images that came out of the Peshawar school attack. It’s a chilling reminder of how susceptible children are to the conflicts and violence that plague our world and how they are commonly used as a propaganda tool by both sides of the war. The attack by Tehreek-i-Taliban militants in the Army school in which 145 people were brutally massacred, 132 of them children, indicates that this brutality will not end but only worsen. For the terrorists, targeting children is an important way of being noticed. In a world all too acclimatised to terrorist attacks, what better way to strike fear in the hearts of citizens than killing the next generation?
The sad part is that terrorists have used children time and again as tools of propaganda both for and against the state. The Peshawar attacks mirrored the chilling Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004 in which Chechnya separatists infiltrated a school and killed 385 people, most of them children, to make demands for a homeland of their own. Earlier this year too there were several reports that indicated that Hamas used children as human shields after the IDF launched its ruthless military campaign in the Gaza strip. The IDF itself invaded Gaza as a response to the Hamas killing of three Israeli teenagers. Such is the power of lives taken too early. They can rally people together and propel swift action.
We are unable to look at the death of children in an unbiased manner. The death of a soldier can be justified as someone who is actively taking part in a war. A young child, on the other hand, doesn’t choose sides. It is a tacit agreement between both sides that children are to be left out of these conflicts. Except, that would be sugar coating the ground realities. The tumultuous situation in Pakistan, Afghanistan and scores of other countries has myriad impacts on children, from displacement to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It also has to be noted that the so called crusaders of democracy are also not immune to using children for their own political ends. Max Fisher of the Washington Post made an astute point when he surmised the West was trying to co-opt Malala to reduce their role in the war that they themselves had created. It’s the same reason why few in Pakistan have responded euphorically to Malala’s story of triumph. To many, she’s a mouthpiece for the West because her ascendance ignores the messy politics of Pakistan and the rise of the Taliban, in which the West itself was complicit. There may be an inkling of truth to such a stance given that Nabila Rehman’s similar story of courage received nowhere near the same coverage. Nabila, a brave ten year old Pakistani girl whose home was destroyed in a drone attack by the US military has nowhere near the same cachet, because her testimony identifies the proponents of freedom as the oppressors. When she appeared in front of the House of Representatives to present her testimony, only five out of over 400 members were present.
This is the turning point for Pakistan, when these tales of horror will be used to justify brutal attacks on tribal groups with tenuous links to insurgents, clamp down on Pakistani citizens’ civil rights and even justify increased American military presence in the region. Pakistani citizens have to be wary of this fear mongering. Reports already indicate big changes. Ten massive air strikes were launched on the TTP in North Waziristan and the country has dismantled a decade long moratorium on the death penalty.
There is precedent for this. A 2006 change in Russian laws included propaganda of terrorist ideas amongst its list of terrorist activities. It doesn’t take an expert to realise that such laws are and will be used to clamp down on freedom of speech. Isn’t it better to debate these controversial political stances on a podium than have them play out in the real world where any civilian is fair prey?
So, by all means, let us honour the innocent children who were killed for a war they played no part in. Let their lives be a reminder that terrorism is a scourge on humanity that affects children more than any other section of society. However, let us remember what separates men from monsters is that our actions are not impulsive but measured.