That Pakistan is an unequal country, at least in terms of income, is not news. Income inequality, though by no means just a developing country phenomenon, is problematic in Pakistan given that it is coupled with high poverty. Pakistan also ranks badly in terms of inequality of opportunity, which means that similar opportunities or life chances, such as access to education, health care and justice, are not available to different segments of society. The poorest typically are the worst affected by inequality of opportunity, resulting in perpetuated poverty across generations. But on top of these inequities, Pakistan is now afflicted with a third: inequality of life security generated by terrorism.
Terrorists have struck Pakistan with an unequal hand over the last few years. The civilian targets tend to be the socially marginalised minorities, such as Shias, Hazaras, Ahmadis and the economically underprivileged, the residents of poor neighbourhoods in Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar. The political targets tend to be brave politicians like Salmaan Taseer, Bashir Bilour and Shahbaz Bhatti, those who dared to say the right thing when no one else did. A third set of targets are security forces, guards and the armed forces, those who knowingly sign up for these most dangerous jobs to protect their fellow citizens. Female polio workers and schoolteachers in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and the tribal areas are yet another target: those who want Pakistan to progress despite fierce opposition in the areas where they work.
Do we honour the lives of these victims of terror in Pakistan? The media shows us their bloody and maimed bodies, but we almost never learn anything more. There are exceptions, including prominent politicians and the list given in this article, but by and large, we never learn more about those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in Peshawar, the residents of Orangi killed in ethnic terrorism, the army officers killed in militant crossfire in Fata and thousands of other victims. This task is daunting, given the sheer number of victims to track. But the value of a human life also seems to have decreased in Pakistan and those living in relative security seem to have become desensitised to what is happening within their country.
Other than a few brave politicians, Pakistan’s privileged classes live in a bubble of conspicuous consumption and safety, their lives entirely removed from the destitution and horror faced by so many of their fellow citizens. This isolation is partly the result of an understandable coping mechanism. But a lack of identification with the victims, a sense of “that cannot happen to me” is also part of the story. It is almost as if the other side of the bridge in Karachi and Balochistan and K-P are part of a different country, one engaged in a long war, like an Iraq or Afghanistan. As a result, a second attack in Hazara town in Quetta becomes less significant and less shocking than the first, the attack on a girls’ school and a polio worker becomes something to be expected, and less fortunate Malalas forever remain faceless and forgotten.
Should we expect fortunate Pakistanis to stop going about their daily activities following each act of terror? No. That would be unrealistic, not to mention damaging for a country already suffering from low productivity. But I am calling for greater empathy from both ordinary unaffected citizens and the media, with the latter leading the way. Here is the minimum the media can do: tell us the names and ages of each terror victim and try to find and show a living picture of him or her, even if it takes days after any given attack to complete this formidable task. What will this accomplish? Once the public realises that the victims are from amongst them and were like them, that they were young children, innocent girls, happy lives cut short, this will generate deeper sympathy for the victims and turn public opinion against terrorists. But if Pakistan’s social and income classes remain alienated from each other, with the additional division generated by terror strikes, resentment will (rightly) increase against the privileged. Pakistan’s already deeply fractured society will become divided beyond repair and irrevocably broken. Let’s not let it get to that stage.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 7th, 2013.