Fighting terrorism

Our job of seeking the truth has become immensely difficult in face of a strategic communications industry

Dr Asad Zaman February 20, 2017
The writer is vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. He holds a PhD in Economics from Stanford University and blogs at

Although Kellyanne Conway has made “alternative facts” famous, the Trump regime has only openly acknowledged what previous regimes used to hide. “Alternative facts” were essential to conduct of the Iraq War, where trillions of dollars were spent to destroy the lives of more than 40 million Iraqis, sending an advanced country back to the stone age. The war would have faced insurmountable domestic resistance if it were not for a propaganda campaign organized by the US government to deceive the public into believing that Iraq had WMD, was a threat to world peace, and that the war was intended to liberate the public from an evil dictator. Even though the word “propaganda” became unpopular after Hitler used it effectively to generate support for his wars, the techniques used to shape public opinion have advanced immeasurably since his times. Today, we live in a post-truth society, where governments spend immense amounts of money on “strategic communications” used to shape our perceptions of reality by feeding us alternative facts.

Our job of seeking the truth has become immensely difficult in face of a trillion- dollar strategic communications industry, funded by militaries, intelligence agencies, corporations, and other actors, which has the sole purpose of fabricating and propagating false facts. With documented billion dollars’ worth of faked videos produced by professional agencies, how can we differentiate between fact and fiction? It has become essential for us to become sophisticated consumers of information, instead of unthinkingly forwarding every message crafted to appeal to our emotions, by one click, to all our friends.

A shocking sequence of terrorist incidents in the recent past have struck Pakistan, surprising all who had hoped that we had put this behind us. Instead of an instant emotional response created by shock and pain, we need to move to a more sophisticated and well thought out response, which can create an effective counter to the strategies being used against us. To craft an intelligent response, it would be very useful to have an idea of the intentions and purpose of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, it is well known that effectiveness of propaganda depends on concealment. One the masters of the craft, Edward Bernays, popularised the practice of using “manufactured” news stories as a replacement for advertisements; the effectiveness of advertisements is weakened by the knowledge that this is designed and paid for persuasion. Even in exceptional cases like Iraq, where leaders like Kissinger and Greenspan, as well as leaked documents, reveal that the war was about control of Iraqi oil, the government and mainstream media continue to stick to the official propaganda that it was not, confusing the public. Much more often, the truth about the intentions and machinations remains hidden in secret files, never to be known by the unsuspecting public.

Even though we may not be able to pinpoint the parties behind the recent spate of terrorist incidents, it is not difficult to guess at their motives. It should be immediately obvious that the terrorists have no particular grudge against the innocents who were killed in the attacks. Among the not-so-hidden motives, one is obviously to terrify — sudden death could strike any one of us. To fight against terrorism, attacks should create the opposite of the effects desired by the terrorists — We need to steel our resolve, and show extra determination and courage. Instead of the emotional response of fear, we should use reason to calculate that the chances of dying in a terrorist incident are much less than the chances of dying in a car accident. Just as we don’t abandon driving, so we should not abandon our normal pursuits of life. If we shut down schools and factories, either in mourning or as a precaution, we hand the terrorists a clear victory: an attack which costs them less than a million. inflicts multi-billion- rupee losses on our nation. The media also needs to cooperate in the effort to fight terrorism. Instead of finding scapegoats to blame, we should show resolve, determination and unity in face of attack. Media coverage of pain and loss, interviews with bereaved families, etc. serve the purposes of the terrorists by magnifying the impact of the incident. Instead of creating weakness, we should project strength by highlighting the countless heroes and heroines who have performed courageously and flawlessly in face of odds.

One very important goal of our enemies is to create dis-unity and discord, where we blame and point fingers at each other, instead of recognising our common enemy. Having successfully divided East and West Pakistan by planting seeds of hatred, they seek to subdivide Pakistan into Sindh, Balochistan, K-P (Sarhad) and Punjab by playing the same game. To counter this, we need to frustrate their goals by drawing closer together in times of tragedy. Divisive discourse is the tool of the enemies of Pakistan. In our personal and public conversations, we should avoid using racial, ethnic, sectarian, or religious stereotyping, and attempt to recognise and project virtues of all segments of our populations. Our media, writers and producers, should rise to the challenge of creating narratives which inspire and motivate us to forget our differences and forge national unity in face of a common enemy. Every attack should strengthen our resolve and determination. Terrorism will cease when the enemies of Pakistan find that their terrorist attacks have the opposite effects of the ones that they intended.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 21st, 2017.

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