Let’s start with the (sort of) happy ending. No one died, no one got killed. But how we ended up with this situation is nothing short of a miracle.
To recap the climax, SIkander the shooter from Hafizabad had held up the capital for five hours. Zamurd (millions of spelling variants available) Khan, a former MNA from the PPP got frustrated with the protracted standoff and left his house in Pindi to come to the scene.
Now, the following fact may never be truly verified, but either on his own initiative or as part of a plan Zamurd went up to SIkander, who had his wife and children standing with him. Zamurd went and asked the two children if they were ok. As he repeated the question for the second or third time, he made a lunge for Sikander. Sikander turned and possibly shot a few rounds, one of which hit a police officer nearby. His turn meant that Zamurd missed his tackle, and he slammed on the asphalt as he slipped. Sikander now began to run backwards and did so for about 15-20 feet.
Displaying a remarkable sense of level-headedness, Zamurd quickly got up and ushered the children away to safety. At this point, Sikander, now well away from the group, had both arms raised in the air, along with the machine guns he held. I am not sure whether this was a signal of surrender, or perhaps him letting the authorities know that he wasn’t going to shoot. At this point though, he noticed the security perimeter around him tightening as police/rangers personnel began approaching him. He panicked and turned to his left, holding both the guns at an angle that they were pointing in front. As he began to run in this direction, he was shot in one leg, causing him to literally fall on his face. The cops now raced towards him, grabbing his weapons and slapping his face with the butt of one of his guns. His wife also began to run towards him when he fell and was body slammed by a police officer. The crisis was over.
So what did we learn, or rather, what can we say about all this?
Security Forces: Non-khaki security forces are regularly and viciously maligned for their incompetence, and the popular image of a tulla is a fat man who rapes witnesses and is prone to doing the bhangra. On most days, we feel disdainful towards them and on good days we feel pity. But despite everything, and based on my limited and non-expert opinion, yesterday was a very successful and competent day for the police. Their first and perhaps biggest error was letting Sikander get to where he did. All roads leading to the so-called Red Zone in Islamabad have checkposts on them. It is possible to get to F6, which is just outside the red zone while avoiding any checkposts. I am not sure which side of the Jinnah Avenue Sikander was on, but it might be possible to get through to the side facing away from the assembly without running into police. Even if Sikander had to go through checkposts, the woman and children would have helped disguise the situation. Still, that was a pretty big failing of standard procedures already in place.
Beyond that though, the police handled this really well, particularly SSP Dr. Rizwan. If you remember, there was one guy in a brown t-shirt last night who kept negotiating with the wife. That was Dr. Rizwan, who had no weapons or armour and who repeatedly put himself in the line of danger to talk him down. I will get to the audience reactions later, but it was disturbing how most of us were not only baying for blood, but also displaying a remarkable lack of awareness regarding such situations. You are supposed to draw out hostage negotiations, tiring out the perps and increasing the chance that they will deviate from their plans. The longer it went, the higher the possibility of Sikander losing out.
Moreover, there are chains of fucking command, and it was clear that there were frantic missives emerging from all ends, as there were first (allegedly) orders to kill from the Ministry of Interior before later orders to take him in alive. It is extremely necessary at an institutional level to respect such lines, particularly as the situation demanded things be taken slowly.
Since I am no expert, I am sure helpful commenters can give precise details of where, what and why the security forces got wrong. But the final scorecard of 0 deaths and a seeming adherence to protocol was very satisfactory to watch.
Zamurd Khan: It is tough to pick on a man who singlehandedly defused a terrorist situation while running an orphanage as his day job, but Zamurd Khan’s actions were as farcical as they were brave.
Let’s assume that Zamurd’s actions were part of the plan. This could be plausible because an army guy on one of the channels had insisted that Sikander could be taken down by a jhappi. However, I am not sure why the police would nominate a politician who had just shown up to do this act, particularly as they had been very patient themselves.
I think that Zamurd was sent in to try and get the kids away, and took matters in his own hand. As I mentioned above, in that chaotic moment he was incredibly level headed and didn’t try and continue to tackle Sikander after he had fallen. Instead, he got the kids out of the line of fire, which was brilliant. Such clarity in chaos is definitely an epitome of bravery.
But bravery and stupidity are not mutually exclusive, and all this was a hair’s breadth away from being a massacre caught live on TV. Try as I might, I could not help but think of an Afridi innings, where Lala does something incredibly stupid only because that’s what we love him for.
But that’s cricket and this was real life. Not only were people going to get killed, but the patient approach that had led up to this moment would have gone to waste. And had that happened, I would’ve liked to see the police get a chance to waste it rather than a guy who just showed up. There is no doubt that Zamurd is an extraordinary man, but his actions are not the solution.
Sikander: The moment this drama started, at one level our desensitized nation picked up on the fact that this was not part of the traditional terrorist situation. Sikander tried to crowbar Sharia and Jihad and whatnot into this but he was no LeT or TTP.
If you check out the latest DIKhan jailbreak, with its multiple tactical sorties, decoys, nightvision goggles, hacked radio frequencies and elaborate and intricate planning, you realise that the effective bad guys are effective for a reason.
Sikander, who may or may not have been trained, felt like a different breed. A Dubai return, he was found telling one TV channel a tale that felt suspiciously like an existential crisis, where he complained how his life meant nothing beyond eating, sleeping and working.
I had done a post about this a few years ago, of middle class Muslims unable to deal with the failed material promises their religious leaders had made to them. Here’s a quote from then (I didn’t use to capitalise back then, so bear with it):
“a host of recent headlines grabbing stories – such as the underwear bomber, the times square bomber, the MP stabber – all had protagonists who were not the downtrodden, marginalised, poor muslims from the ghettoes, but rather university educated middle class muslims… a middle class child is brought up in a culture that places great pressure on achieving a good education, finding a stable and succesful foothold in society… but for all these essentially material aims, the middle class provides its children with lofty ideologies as justifications. when the middle class child, especially a talented or high achieving one, enters university or the workplace, they get a chance to be away from their middle class culture and become exposed to a greater spectrum of ideas and experiences. and at this point, the chasm between the material aims they strive for, and the ideas that are meant to supplant them, become glaringly obvious. they become exceedingly frustrated that their entire lives were premised around contradictions…”
I think this is the category of ‘terrorists’ that Sikander belongs to. In the ultimate moment, for all his bravado, he didn’t have the cold-bloodedness needed to gun down Zamurd, his kids, or the crowd gathered around him.
But more worryingly, people like Sikander are a huge problem. When people mock the PTI and others for wanting to ‘hug a terrorist’ they seem to be implying that war-war rather than jaw-jaw would be the answer. Perhaps in Waziristan and other random useless places, but how the fuck are you going to deal with the latent-radicalisation that produces people like Sikander, and those who lionize him? Ayesha Siddiqa has written a lot and very well on this. For example:
“Defining radicalism is important also because it is an essential ‘cog in the wheel’ as far as extremism or even violent extremism is concerned. Radicalism is more in the realm of the essential thought process that can then translate into violent extremism… It is at later stages that such attitude or perspective can mature into active discrimination and even violence. Extremism and violence is an outcome of radical ideology and mindset.”
The constant and unwavering manipulation of religion to serve hypernationalist and violent goals has now meant that there is little to no ideological space left to fight such mindsets. Sikander, who wanted to impose Sharia much like the TTP, also kept quoting the examples of Imam Hussain and Abbas Alamdar – quintessentially Shia icons who are also revered by Barelvi Sunnis and others on the spectrum before Deobandis.
To me, this was a man’s struggle with a midlife crisis, with his mortality, with the meaning of his life. What was tragic though was that he had been led to believe that imposing the legal version of his spirituality – the Sharia – would automatically lead him to the modern, material utopia of happiness. I wish I had time to tease this out properly, but this was the pitiful byproduct of our military-mullah nexus. Our hijacking of intellectual thought by those that brandish weapons and justify it by cynically appealing to higher causes. And while Sikander was ultimately harmless; far more vengeful, deranged and violent byproducts of that same nexus still remain out there. And I am afraid that deciding to gun all of them down and start operations and bombings says little more than the shrill calls of self-preservation us rich types like to revel in.
The Media: I hate picking on the media because I am part of that fraternity, and I am as enthralled by the spectacle as any other Pakistani. Moreover, the media has had a million low points and I can’t honestly criticize it without admitting any culpability at some level.
Two things that were really, insanely stupid do deserve mention though.
First up, getting Sikander on the phone. I can imagine the Dunya Newsroom (which was the most breakingest channel last night) would have been a gloriously adrenaline pumped arena for most of last night, and tbh I would’ve loved to be part of that energy. But those Sikander beepers were mostly boneheaded because they were directly interfering with police strategy. Moreover, since anchors are just talking heads who respond to the commands the producers bark into their ear piece, they can’t be considered as experienced hostage negotiators. Had Sikander been provoked by any of them and started going nuts, the responsibility would’ve been on their heads.
The most chutya thing of the night though was Mr Malik (or whatever)’s show on Dunya. Standing a few hundred meters from the spot, he kept breaking the inside news that the interior ministry had given kill orders. I kept thinking of Mumbai in 2008 and how Kasab & co kept watching the news channels to pick up on what the security forces were planning. Not only was the same happening here, but imagine if Sikander’s father-in-law (one of many family members contacted on the phone) had heard this news, and texted Sikander to please take care of the kids or something, and SIkander freaking out as a response would’ve kept the gun to a child’s head? What then?
There might be other complaints too, but for me these were the two standout mistakes that should never be repeated by any channel. End of. I would rather that journalists can reign themselves in before our delightfully reactionary intelligentsia calls for bans and more bans.
The Audience: There were several things last night that left me completely aghast at my own behavior, and those of others.
For starters, we all hate terrorists because they kill and main and have no respect for life. But IMHO the only way to hold a moral ground higher than them is to fucking respect life, including those of the terrorists. There was a constant, unending baying for blood – repeated demands that snipers take out the man immediately.
Half of that impulse was because we were all getting bored. After the first few hours, nothing seemed to be happening and everyone wanted some masala. I know I did, and that’s why Safieh and I shut our TV and twitters because the situation was taking us to weird places inside our heads.
But beyond that, it was also stunning to realize how few people had seen any Hollywood hostage drama. I mean, I’ve addressed the need to prolong the situation earlier. But we also had no way of knowing if the car was rigged with explosives or not, whether the wife or even the kids were wearing suicide jackets. Taking him down could’ve compromised any of that, and would’ve been tactically ruinous.
In a film at least, until the suspect is seen to be committing deadly action, the snipers are held off. The plan is to arrest the guy and prosecute him. Unfortunately, those of us who claim to support human rights and liberty rarely take such values into account when dealing with our ideological opponents, demanding a sort of street justice. I am sorry, but that is the worst form of reactionism, and no better than the terrorists we are supposed to oppose.
Lastly, there is the question of tamasha. I know you know we all love tamasha, but this was next level. At least the TV audience could claim that they’d seen much worse on national TV before (Lal Masjid, the two attempts on BB and the aftermath, May 12, the Sri Lankan team attack, the siege of the police academy in Lahore etc) but what about the crowd on the spot?
I have lived in Karachi and Lahore and worked in Pindi and so a year after Islamabad I can safely say that its residents are slower than most. But if you need Geo fucking News to give you sane advice, i.e. please don’t bring your wife and kids to watch this spectacle, then you really need to reconsider your life.
Right at the end, when Sikandar was caught, many of us were indignant that the police seemed to be firing in the air to celebrate. But I later learnt that they were firing to prevent the onlooking crowd from rushing forward to the scene. I mean, come the fuck on guys. What were you thinking?
Its an unfortunate fact that this event was the most family-friendly, narrative-pleasing possible outcome for any terrorist situation in the country. But for a rare moment, all of us were in that situation. And it was then that we could see that the people we constantly deride and mock for not keeping the country safe were a lot more rational and logical than all of us who keep judging them from our high horses. Lets just take a moment to let that sink in.