by Pervez Hoodbhoy [first published in the daily Dawn of Pakistan]
Drones, machine and human, have drenched Pakistan with the blood of innocents. On the one side are US-made drones such as the MQ-1B General Dynamics Predator – a remote controlled, self-propelled, missile-bearing aerial system. On the other side are the low-tech human drones, armed with explosive vests stuffed with ball bearings and nails.
These lethal engines of destruction, programmed by remote handlers, are very different. But neither asks why it must kill, nor cares about the death and suffering it causes.
On Jan 13, 2006, a bevy of MQ-1Bs hovering over Damadola launched a barrage of ten Hellfire missiles at the village below. They blew up 18 local people, including five women and five children. Such cold statistics say nothing about the smashed lives of the survivors, or the grief of the bereaved. The blame was put on faulty local intelligence.
Then, on Oct 30, 2006, a Hellfire missile hit a madressah in Bajaur killing between 80-85 people, mostly students. Even if those killed were allegedly training to become Al Qaeda militants, and even if a few key Al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Laith al-Libi have been eliminated, the more usual outcome has been flattened houses, dead and maimed children, and a growing local population that seeks revenge against Pakistan and the US.
The human drone has left a far bloodier trail across Pakistani cities.
From six suicide attacks in 2006, the tally went up to 62 in 2007. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, at least 1,523 civilians were killed in terror-related violence in 2007 and more than twice that number injured. The average is now more than one per week – the last week saw three in a row. Those praying in mosques, imambargahs, or at funerals have been no safer than others at political rallies or while crossing a road.
It is possible to imagine how an American soldier or CIA operative controlling a Predator drone can distance himself from the death and destruction it causes in a remote country on the other side of the world that they imagine is full of enemies. For them, it is a job and a way to defend their country. What is harder to understand is how the Pakistani suicide bomber can kill people who are so close to him in so many ways.
A spine-chilling suicide bomber training video, one of the several videos that freely circulate in Pakistan’s tribal areas, offers the beginning of an explanation. About 30 masked fighters are filmed in this video, speaking a language that is not any of Pakistan’s regional languages, Arabic, or Persian. They are training in some barren, mountainous area. One fighter, randomly selected by their leader, proceeds to climb a huge rock, perhaps 100 feet high. He reaches the highest point, and then stands motionless. His arms are outstretched as though on a diving board. On a signal from the leader below, without hesitation, and without closing his eyes, he hurls himself into the void.
The camera cuts to the body lying on blood-soaked ground. It slowly pans over the faces of the other masked fighters. Their eyes betray no emotion. A second signal from the leader, and they trot military-style to the body, dig a shallow grave, toss their dead comrade into it, and cover it up. Then, amazingly, they march over the grave several times, chanting Quranic verses. This is astonishing, because to trample a grave is the ultimate mark of disrespect in a Muslim culture.
Why sacrifice a human life for a few minutes of footage? English sub-titles reveal that this is obviously a propaganda video. Its message: the group’s fighters have overcome the fear of death, and have willingly surrendered their lives to the group leader, and their individual powers to reason and decide.
As troubling as the murders is the response of Pakistanis. While the murder of innocents by the MQ-1B has rightly led to condemnation in Pakistan, the even greater carnage by suicide bombers has provoked less criticism. Some editorials, mostly in English language newspapers, have been forthright. But there are few full-throated denunciations to be found in Urdu newspapers.
On the other hand, implicit justifications abound. In January 2008, 30 leading Deobandi religious scholars, while declaring suicide attacks ‘haram’, rationalised these as a reaction to the government’s misguided polices in the tribal areas. They concluded that “a peaceful demand for implementing Shariah was not only rejected but the government was also not willing to give ear to any reasoning based on the Quran and Sunnah in support of the Shariah demand. Apparently, these circumstances led some minds to the frustration that manifested itself in suicide attacks.”
What are these ulema telling us? That we should adopt the Shariah to avoid being attacked? This amounts to encouragement and incitement, not condemnation of the suicide bombers’ actions. But even civil society activists, who have bravely protested against the dismissal of the Chief Justice by Gen Musharraf, have not held any street protests against these ghastly crimes.
Why do so many Pakistanis who should know better suddenly lose their voice when it comes to condemning suicide bombings? Is it because the bomber kills in the name of Islam? Are people muted in their criticism lest they be regarded as irreligious or even blasphemous?
Or, is the silence political? Many choose to believe that the suicide bomber is a consequence of Pakistan’s acquiescence to being America’s junior partner in its war against terror. Conversely, there is a widespread opinion that suicide attacks will disappear if Pakistan dissociates itself from this war. But, few admit the brutal fact that even if America retreats or an elected government calls off the army, the terror of jihadism will remain.
It is true that suicide bombings were a rarity in Pakistan until the army acted against Islamic militants in the tribal areas on US prodding. Army action against the Lal Masjid militants was another turning point. But the majority of today’s dead and wounded are perfectly ordinary people. Many were pious Muslims, and some were killed in the act of prayer. They had absolutely nothing to do with American or Pakistani forces.
Even with evidence staring them in the face, most Pakistanis seem locked into a state of denial. They refuse to accept the obvious fact that more and more mullahs have created cults around themselves and exercise control over the lives of worshippers. An enabling environment of poverty, deprivation, lack of justice, and extreme differences of wealth is perfect for demagogues.
As the mullah’s indoctrination gains strength, the power to reason weakens. The world of the follower becomes increasingly divided into absolute good and absolute evil. Doubt is replaced by certainty, moral sensibilities are blunted. Reduced to a mere instrument for murder, the bomber-to-be is left with no room for useless things such as judgment, doubt, or conscience. As other human beings become mere objects rather than people deserving of love and compassion, the metamorphosis from human to drone becomes complete.
The last thoughts of a suicide bomber cannot be known, but remorse or doubt is unlikely. There is no lower depth to which humans can fall to. Except, perhaps, those who control them – and towards whom we still dare not point a finger at.
The writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.