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Belmont Club

Caving

April 25th, 2009 - 10:41 pm

The character of Bill the Butcher in the movie Gangs of New York explained the secret of power of terrorism. It is the ability to command obedience through fear. Bill explained, “I’m forty-seven. Forty-seven years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.”

The Taliban understand this principle well. Mohammed Hanif of the BBC has watched his country, Pakistan, simply avert its eyes from the reign of terror. He writes in a Washington Post editorial entitled, My Country, Caving to the Taliban:

The day after Pakistan’s government signed a peace deal with the Taliban allowing them to implement their own version of sharia in the Swat Valley, there was a traffic jam at a square in downtown Mingora, the main town in the region. The square, Green Chowk, has acquired the nickname Khooni Chowk, or Bloody Square, because the Taliban used to string up their victims there. “Look at this.” A shopkeeper pointed to the hubbub. “This is what people wanted, to get out and do business. Take the security forces away, take the Taliban away, and we can get on with our lives.” He, like many Pakistanis, believed that the deal with the Taliban was the only way to stop bullet-riddled bodies from turning up at Khooni Chowk.

Mingora is not a backwater, not part of the Wild West that foreign journalists invoke whenever they talk about the Taliban. It’s bursting with aspiration; it has law schools, a medical college, a nurses’ training institute. There is even a heritage museum. Yet when peace arrived on Feb. 16, all the women vanished. They were not in the streets or in the offices, not even in the bazaar, which sells nothing but fabric, bags, shoes and fashion accessories.

The music market vanished, too. All 400 shops. The owner of one had converted it into a kebab joint. “This is sharia,” he spat at his grill, which hissed with more smoke than fire. Across from his stand, a barber had hung the obligatory “No un-Islamic haircuts, no shaves” sign and was taking an early morning nap, his face covered with a newspaper.

This, I was told, was the price of peace.

What does peace look like? The Guardian obtained a copy of cell phone video being circulated by the Taliban showing what was in store for women who defied sharia, or at least, their understanding of sharia. Video shown below is an example of what Hanif is talking about. But what puzzled Hanif was how things could come to this pass.  “Over the past two years, Pakistani civil society has driven a military dictator from power and managed to force an elected government to restore our top judges to the bench. But when it comes to the Taliban, it seems incapable of speaking with one voice. There is little sense of an impending crisis, just the blithe belief that the Taliban are not as bad as they seem, and that in any case, Pakistan’s fractious government and security services are no match for these men with beards and guns. I hear vague comparisons with the days before the Iranian revolution; the only problem is that we don’t seem to have a Khomeini, at least not yet.”

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I think part of Hanif’s problem with understanding the ascendancy of the Taliban arises from the inability to compare the toughness necessary to push back against a regular government, even one as corrupt as Pakistan’s and the toughness necessary to fight armed terror. People boast of how they fought the repression of George W. Bush and defied the fascism of America’s right wing in the same tones one would use in describing an assault on Iwo Jima, thinking they are describing their heroism when what they are really describing is their membership in the little leagues.  The examples are all around us: artists who will depict a cross in bottle of urine but tremble at the thought of handling a Koran without white gloves;  ‘feminists’ who are very aggressive about the life span, or lack thereof, of babies, but who can’t find their voice when women are beaten, mutilated and beheaded; countries which think it’s the height of nobility to prosecute American war criminals but depend on them for safety. It’s not surprising at all that a “Pakistani civil society [that] has driven a military dictator from power and managed to force an elected government to restore our top judges to the bench”. You could face down the first with demonstrations and civil disobedience; but try that with al-Qaeda. To them a crowd is a just a big target-rich environment. Hanif himself understands it will take more than the normal civil disobedience to shift the hard men:

This resignation was on display recently when a video surfaced showing the Taliban flogging a teenage girl for stepping out of her house unaccompanied by a male family member. The gruesome display outraged civil society and portions of the media. But apologists for the Taliban were louder, and the response in Pakistan followed a pattern that has become familiar since 9/11: first denial and then willful ignorance. “The video was fake.” “The media should not have run it.” “Are you using this video as an excuse to criticize the Koran?” By the time the debate died down, the Urdu media had concluded that the video was part of a conspiracy to derail the Swat peace deal, but that the punishment was appropriate. Again the justifications. Maybe the Taliban had not followed the proper procedures, but surely they can be reasoned with…

Sure, thousands have turned up at anti-Taliban rallies; there are Facebook groups galore protesting their policies. But people know that raising a banner in a city square or clicking on an e-petition is not going to convince the Taliban to give up their arms and go back to their day jobs (or, in most cases, return to an endless cycle of unemployment). …

What are people to do?

I got a glimpse of what they are already doing in Lahore. At a hotel that is so safe, I was told, that Americans often use it, I saw security guards posted at multiple entrances. You see private security guards everywhere in Pakistan, but one I spoke with had his pistol drawn. When I asked him why, he shrugged and said that those were his orders. But how he will guard against a truckload of explosives, a band of men armed with rocket launchers or an ideology that wants us to dress and behave like people in Mecca circa A.D. 570 remains unclear.

What are they to do to fight the Taliban? Would he like to hear it? Nobody likes to hear it, and I think part of the reason Barack Obama was elected was the hope it would never have to be faced.

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