Understanding the Easter Massacre in Lahore

“Vile and senseless” were the Holy Father’s words for the huge massacre of Christians at the gates of a public park in Lahore, celebrating Easter Sunday.

Many dozen were killed (mostly women and children), and many hundreds were maimed in this suicide bombing – so many, that all hospitals in the city were overrun, and desperately appealed for blood donations. It was on the scale of the slaughter at All Saints, Peshawar, in 2013; it was bigger than the Easter hits on churches across Lahore last year.

For all these attacks, the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit. They are an umbrella organization with innumerable cells in groupings that are constantly changing. The structure is well designed to resist penetration by police informants.

After each bombing in Pakistan, a couple hundred are arrested from among “the usual suspects.” No judge who loves his own life, or cares much for the fate of his family, could wish to preside over a trial. Hence the “catch and release” policy that seems to pertain across the country; and the frustration of Western intelligence sources who may happen to know who the real suspects are, and wonder why they are never arrested.

Lahore is familiar to me from childhood, and through several returns in later life to this venerable and once beautiful city, which still offers impressive monuments from the Raj, the Mughals, and times between and preceding. Once Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, even Parsees and Buddhists lived peaceably together in that beloved city.

At Partition, this mix was suddenly reduced to Muslims and a native Christian (mostly Catholic) minority. Even around 1960, as a child at St Anthony’s school, I was aware that Christians should be meek and respectful, especially during Ramadan.

One might delve into the history – the nexus of nationalism and the budding “Islamism” by which Pakistan itself was created – to understand what is happening now. Both were imported, as “ideas with consequences,” and both were expressions of modernity. Both ascend from the roots of the country, and to imagine that some political policy could eliminate the “root causes” is to postulate time travel.

At my last visit to Lahore, more than a decade ago, many people I spoke with were already worried. They knew the great majority in Pakistan, or at least in sophisticated urban Lahore, were no fanatics; that their attitude was still, basically, “live and let live.” But they were frightened by the explosive increase of graduates from the madrassas – typically they’d estimate “5 percent” – committed to a violent Islamist agenda.

Their comparison was typically to Iran, in the last moments of the Shah. It was hardly a majority of Shia fanatics who brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

A mother mourns for her son in Lahore

Paradoxically, it was this Persian warning that set the stage for Pakistan’s enduring terrorist underground. The country’s governments have been all too aware of the precedent, and determined to prevent it “from happening here.” They have thus played a game of carrot and stick, assuaging on one hand with Shariah innovations in the civil law, and on the other building a huge army and intelligence establishment as much for domestic as any foreign purpose (such as rivalry with India).

But in the mountainous Northwest, the border with Afghanistan is always porous; and any large bureaucracy is subject to organized political infiltration. As generations of Pakistan’s politicians have explained to visiting diplomats from the West, they are not in full control of events, and cannot be. They have no wish to surrender to the Taliban, but there is no conceivable way to defeat it, short of another melee on the scale of Partition.

“Vile and senseless.”

The pope’s analysis is only about one-third right, according to me. I’m with him on “vile” – along with, I should think, the great majority of Pakistanis. The slaughter of innocents is understood as vile, even by non-Christians. This is complicated, however, by “identity politics,” which, with the assistance of mass communications, has brought primitive tribalism back into modern political life, with international repercussions.

Hence, even in Pakistan, and even decades ago, I would sometimes detect an insinuation of “the Christians have it coming,” because they were imagined to be arrogant, despite their best efforts to keep their heads down. Or in the West, the growing sense that in light of terrorism, “the Muslims have it coming.”

There is an Us-versus-Them that helps to explain how complacent masses quietly identify with members of their own respective tribes, even when they are obviously in the wrong. It is a personalized calculus that is specifically modern, though built on facts of identity that seem ancient and irrevocable.

But “senseless” these attacks are not. They, too, are part of a very modern, “democratic” calculus, which first emerged in the outwardly senseless violence of anarchists, socialists, and nationalists, in the nineteenth century. The calculation was, that violence – what Rumsfeld liked to call “asymmetric warfare” – could change the odds for a hopeless cause.

“Terrorism” is adopted as a tactic, or even a strategy, because it often works. It works not because it appeals to a majority, or can be made to appeal to them. Terrorists are too rational for that; more rational indeed than those who think them “senseless.” Gratuitous acts of carnage – whether to flesh or e.g. to archaeological targets in Iraq and Syria – are meant to hold the attention of the masses, to shock and horrify them.

The Lenins, the Hitlers, the Maos, the Khomeinis who came to power, understood the use of “senseless violence.” Though seldom with enthusiasm, all were more or less welcomed by the complacent masses, when their revolutions triumphed. The attitude was invariably, “At least we’ll get some peace.”

So here is the sense in it. East and West, the radical employs violence and chaos not to incite some bourgeoisie into unpredictable action, but to prey upon their longing for security. In the end they will surrender anything for a quiet life.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.