The best and the worst of times
The News, September 21, 2008
By Shafqat Mahmood
LAHORE: The day gone by in Islamabad could not have been more eventful, truly reflecting the much repeated Dickens line in A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
It was the best because after a long time a civilian president addressed a joint session of parliament. The last military ruler came once to the parliament building, only to be greeted with a constant cacophony of catcalls and boos throughout his speech. This time the presidential address was heard in a civilised and orderly manner, reflecting the true traditions of a parliamentary democracy. It was something to cheer about.
It was the worst of times because the explosion in front of the Marriott was the deadliest car bomb in the history of the capital, killing about 100 people. This toll will probably rise after all the missing have been accounted for, including all the drivers who congregated in front of the building waiting for their masters to return. We can only hope for the best.
It is the best of times because democracy with all its flaws is now flowering. Politics and politicians are in command and the military has quietly chosen to play its assigned role of defence. It is the worst of times because never before has the nation faced such an organised insurgency. We need to have patience to overcome the teething problems of a democratic order that has many visible flaws. We need to have endurance and fortitude to fight the cancer that threatens our survival from within. The Marriott hotel is an iconic building in the capital because it is where the rich and powerful of the land congregate. It is also the place where most foreigners stay. This bomb attack was not just a stray attack on a well-guarded area of the capital. It was designed to strike terror in the heart of the Pakistani ruling class and the foreign visitors who deal with it.
It was also as clear a message as possible that the militants are not on the run. It demonstrated that they have the ability and the wherewithal to hit the most sensitive places in the country.
This attack should open the eyes of those who think that Pakistan does not have a home-grown problem of religious militancy. There are many apologists within the political parties and in the media, who explain away the insurgency in the tribal areas and parts of the Frontier as only a reaction to the American invasion of Afghanistan. They refuse to recognise that we are facing an organised attempt to destabilise the existing structure of the state and take it over. Such notions are dismissed as too fanciful because it is hard to believe that these people can have such grandiose objectives.
This attack on a day when parliament sat in a joint sitting to hear the presidential address and when anyone and everyone who mattered was in the capital should make the sceptics rethink. These brazen attacks in the heart of the capital can only have one purpose and that is to destabilise the state. If they are not successful or their motives and ambitions seem quixotic, it is not a reason to discount them. If anything, their objective can provide a clue to their methods and perhaps prevent another attack of such a magnitude.
President Zardari and his team will now have to rethink not only the priority that they give to the war against militancy and terror, they will also have to put in place draconian security measures to ensure that sensitive installations in the capital and indeed in other places of the country are properly protected. Despite a series of suicide bombings, I am afraid the attitude of our government officials and the citizens towards security is lackadaisical to say the least. The citizens bristle at going through security procedures and often quarrel with security personnel. The security people in turn are either rude or only go through motions without paying proper attention. We cannot afford either. The real test for the government is to train its security forces to thwart terrorist attacks. The real test for the citizens is to recognise the need for security measures.
It is important for the nation to come together and stand behind the government in its efforts to fight terrorism. We have a lot of differences with each other and are a quarrelsome lot when it comes to politics. On the issue of fighting militancy and indeed insurgency against the state, we have to put aside our differences and stand together. We can argue about tactics but there cannot be any disagreement with the objective of protecting the nation.
Islamabad Marriott Blast May Deepen Strains With - Bloomberg
Terror pledge after Pakistan bomb - BBC