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Tales of ordinary terror

Publication Date : 27-01-2014

 

We can all rattle off the list of losses, and it’s a long list. The bomb on the bus in Mastung, the bodies lying on Alamdar road, the funeral processions of dead polio workers, the flag covered coffins of soldiers, the touted numbers of dead terrorists.

These are the numbers that make the front pages of papers, the sound bytes atop news headlines. We listen, we shudder, we shake and mourn and move on, in this, the 13th year of the war on terror; Pakistanis have seen it all, and mourned it all, and feared it all.

We have also learned from it all. While most Pakistanis live amidst terror, they are not likely to die of it. The proximity of terror, the proliferation of decapitated heads and piled up bodies, has imposed another kind of shadow on the population.

The gray outlines of its cast extend over the minds of the ordinary man and of the ordinary woman, on the children and on the elderly. Unlike the bomb blasts that kill instantly and maim visibly, however, its consequences are invisible and internal, secret and surreptitious.

Great evil, like great good, dwarfs all else within its perimetre. The curious expiation of the weight of violence under which Pakistanis crouch daily is the dulling of our usual sins, the sudden permissibility of ordinary lapses.

After all, when buses are being bombed, stealing a mobile at gunpoint cannot be so bad, robbing a bank only moderately culpable. The logic of killing innocent people and the proffered justifications can be copied and pasted into our own moral miasmas.

The results are wondrous and purifying; the sins of others justify our sins on them. If you steal from your boss, it’s only because he steals from his. If you beat your servants, it is permissible so long as you give them a new outfit on the next Eid. If you throw rubbish on your neighbour’s porch, it is only because you know they would do the same to you.

The moral universe of terror is a skewed one, and it creeps its way into the veins of the afflicted. If you see a co-worker after a few weeks, make sure to tell him he has gained weight; if you see a friend, bring up a party to which she was uninvited.If you park next to a car nicer than yours, make sure you ding the door. If you have the opportunity to destroy another’s happiness, to attack another’s satisfaction, to degrade another’s distress, you must not let it go.

In a world of headless bodies and polio stricken children, such acts have no status, and everyday nicety and normal morality must all be suspended. If you steal a bit, hurt a bit, deny a bit, and destroy a bit, at the end of the day, it may not be such a bad thing. After all, crime, morality, consideration, and kindness are all relative terms when judged against a normal of many daily deaths.

If the actual terrorist can justify the instant taking of innocent lives, the minor moral terrorist, the more ordinary one, can justify the usurping of opportunities, the demanding of bribes, the breaking of rules, the hurting of others' feelings, the sidelining of competitors.

Against the feeling of larger helplessness, against murky futures and empty promises, it feels good to feel just a little more powerful than something or someone who is deemed weaker than you. .

We believe that terror lies elsewhere, outside our home and outside our hearts; we are all against it except when we are not. The Pakistani born of terror believes in progress built on annihilation, of an opponent, a competitor, a neighbour, a relative, a wife or a brother, making all killers of a minor kind.

 

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