Human Tragedy at the Peshawar Army school -a game changer or a mere blip on the radar?
R. K. Bhandari

Human violence and brutality fell to their lowest of the low in our living memory when 148 people, including 132 innocent students at a Pakistan’s Army run school in Peshawar were shot dead from a point blank range on Wednesday, 17 December 2014, by the ruthless Tehrik-e-Taliban. The tragedy sent shock waves across the globe, still doing rounds. The question before all of us is whether this tragedy too will be forgotten until the next one strikes; or whether the pain in our bleeding hearts will, at least this time, charge our hands to cleanse the rot, no matter how long the battle. John Steinbeck spoke of the cruelty of agribusiness when he said that, “There is a crime here which goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.”1 Surely he must have used much harsher words to describe the stinking violence perpetrated by the Taliban in Peshawar.

The Peshawar tragedy is just one of the countless we know and the big picture will be far more dreadful if we have some way to aggregate the cruelties suffered in different parts of the world for whatever reason, be that, terrorism, turf war, hatred, misunderstanding, foolishness or any other. Joseph Stalin believed that, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” History is witness to a number of tragedies unleashed by the gun shots fired not only at innocent ordinary mortals like those in Peshawar but also at great men of rare distinction. Abraham Lincoln too was shot in his head like the students in the Peshawar school. We also lost Mahatma Gandhi, J. F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and many others to the bullet and the pain is so intense that, even decades after they have gone, the very thought of those horror events makes our hearts weep. Those young ones, who were prematurely lost in Peshawar and elsewhere, were not Lincolns, Kennedys and Gandhis but can anyone put a hand on the heart and rule out that none of them would have made to that grade, or even excelled.

There have been cases in which individuals were responsible for killing many students at one time. On 8 June 2001, in a primary school in the Osaka Prefecture in Japan, a single killer brutally stabbed 31 people including 8 kids with a hand knife. On 16 April 2007, on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United State, again a single killer shot down 32 students. Four years later, on 7 April 2011, about one dozen students of a municipal school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were shot dead, also by a single killer. And if we homo sapiens keep killing one another and repeatedly fail to put a full stop to this mindless violence, one day the mother Earth itself will go the way of other lifeless planets at the hands of its own people!

At the Peshawar school, it was a massacre of 132 students at one place, at one time. Imagine, if the same 132 students would have been individually shot dead by the same terrorist group at different locations at different times? In both the cases, the parents would have lost their sons and daughters, and the statistics of deaths would have advanced equally. The punch in the breaking news and the ensuing societal emotions aroused in the above two cases would have been very different, however. Now imagine if the tragedy would have changed its location from Peshawar to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, and instead of the terrorist attack, cross border fire on the Indo-Pak border would have been the cause; for the same heinous crime, responsibility could have never been fixed. Voltaire once said,” It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Sylvia Plath has put it more succinctly, “Why do we electrocute men for murdering an individual and then pin a purple heart on them for mass slaughter of someone arbitrarily labelled as enemy.”?

For a moment, if we keep the degree of brutality and emotional outbursts aside, what if the same 132 students in the Peshawar school, instead of bullets, got killed in a building collapse due to an earthquake because of the builder’s blunder, or because of food poisoning due to the gross neglect of hygiene by the kitchen contractor, or in a hospital because of the supply of spurious medicines? Is it not a big tragedy in itself that, for a wakeup call, we need more sensational narratives and, for developing the urge to act, we need a photo opportunity with the whole world watching! In an honest analysis, in the eyes of the affected parents, the builder who made an earthquake unsafe school, the contractor who supplied the killer midday meal and the doctor who administered spurious drugs are as much guilty as the terrorists in the Peshawar school.

The Peshawar jolt is big enough for us to act. We now harbour hope for a safer future because the heat of the incident is unbearable, our inner urge is more powerful than gun shots and the whole world is ready to join hands in the war against terrorism. One wonders, why have we not already acted hard enough to put an end to such a lingering menace? Over the period of decades, rather than curbing terrorism, we chose to remain mute. We turned a blind eye to the growing exploitation, hatred and violence in our societies. Nelson Mandela wrote, “ I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love for violence. I planned it as a result of calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”

Whereas societies must never tolerate perpetrators of crime and the assaults of bullets over the ballot, the violence of all kinds and the exploitation in our societies must stop. Transformational changes cannot be imposed from outside. Rather the urge for change and the fire of anguish burning within us should be harnessed to ignite our conscious from within. Make no mistake that great things always begin from inside. For example, an egg will break, and life in it would end the moment it is broken from the outside. On the other hand, the same egg will give birth to a new life when the action comes from within.

The whole world must unite in its war against terrorism. According to Dr Man Mohan Singh, the former Prime Minister of India, “Together with international unity and resolve, we can meet the challenge of this global scourge and work to bring about an international law of zero tolerance for terrorism”.

While we must bring new laws to book terrorists for savagery, is it not extra-ordinary that because of inaction and our own follies, we are not even able to stop avoidable loss of lives. Governments should rise above politics and show a strong political will and zero tolerance against everything that threatens life. Officials should be made accountable both for their actions and inactions. We must get serious about saving lives regardless of the causative factors. For instance, in every earthquake disaster, we explain away deaths in terms of the collapse of buildings and yet nobody is held accountable and penalized for faulty design and construction of buildings. Nearly 4000 years ago, King Hammurabi the sixth King of Babylonia in the Southern Iraq, used the policy of zero tolerance to guarantee safe buildings for all. Hammurabi demonstrated that by zero tolerance against failures and by punishing the guilty, safe buildings can be achieved on the ground. Of the 282 codes, six were exclusively devoted to zero tolerance against faulty construction. For instance, when a builder was found guilty of constructing a building that killed the owner, then the builder himself was put to death. If the owner's son was killed, in punishment, the builder’s son received a death sentence. It may not be possible to do what Hammurabi did several millennia ago, but we can certainly implement our laws strictly, without fear or favor.

The Asian Age newspaper reported on 12 December 2014 that a five year old child fell from a swing in the Motinagar area of west Delhi and died. Reacting to the news, the Delhi Municipal Commissioner said, “We have taken note of the incident and have suspended several officials”. Further, he directed concerned departments to inspect swings in parks and schools. Such responses from the authorities are all too familiar. The normal public expectation is that the responsibilities of institutions, departments, groups and individuals should be fixed in advance so that they could be promptly brought to book for the acts of serious negligence and lapses. We also frequently hear the news of school children getting killed by free fall into open pits, manholes and bore holes, across the country. According to the information provided in the Indian Parliament as quoted in a media report, in 2012, 194 children died of avoidable incidents. In the national capital Delhi alone, an average of 5 children died after falling into pits or manholes during the period 2010-2012. In 2010, the Supreme Court of India had issued directives to all States and Union territories to adopt every possible measure, such as registration of drilling agencies, proper capping of wells, putting up warning signboards, fencing and filling of pits after drilling operations. When shall we implement the Supreme Court order both in letter and spirit? Such deaths are entirely preventable, provided there is a political will on the part of the government and codes and laws are strictly implemented.

Mankind has suffered tragedies of all shades and colours, each time growing in frequency and savagery, adding to the mound of statistics. It is a do or die situation and it would be a pity if this time also we fail to rise above the ritualistic expression of our good intentions. However, only the time will tell whether the Peshawar tragedy would prove to be a game changer in our fight against terrorism; or it will once again disappear as a blip, created by the heat of the moment, on the radar of our transient memory screens. Finally, it is not only the loss of lives due to terrorism; we must endeavour to save lives against every hazard, regardless of the causative factors.

(The author is a Disaster Management Expert based in Delhi)


  1. The Grapes of Wrath:

Published Date: 6th January 2015, Image source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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