Smoke drifts over grounded planes at the airport in Karachi after the attacks. Photo: Getty
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For people in Karachi, the airport attacks show once more that fear has become a fact of life

It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. What does it say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan, that it was able to happen at all?

Every time I fly through Karachi’s Jinnah International airport, I am struck by the sheer volume of security checks. Your bag is scanned and ticket checked before you enter the airport, then again when you check in, and again before you go through to departures. Of course, if metal detectors made that much difference to terror attacks, Karachi would hardly have any: the city is dotted with the things. They stand incongruously outside bakeries, mobile phone shops, malls; a sort of comfort blanket against the dangers outside.

Around midnight last night, around 10 Taliban gunmen launched an attack on the airport. Wearing military uniforms, they shot their way into the facility. And of course – what good is a metal detector when someone is armed with guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and suicide vests? There were dramatic photographs of planes on fire (subsequently, it transpired that the fires were simply near the planes). It was reported that militants had hijacked one; it has been suggested that this was the aim but that it was ultimately unsuccessful. Terrified passengers trapped on planes on the runway tweeted about their predicament and desperately phoned home. Security forces battled the gunmen all night. In total, at least 28 people – including the 10 or so militants – were killed. The operation to secure the area is ongoing.

What does this say about the state of Karachi, and of Pakistan? Firstly, it should be noted that this coastal megalopolis is not just the biggest city in Pakistan, but one of the biggest in the world. Home to around 25 million people, it is the economic hub of Pakistan and one of the most important cities politically. It is mind-boggling that such an audacious attack should be possible in such a major airport in a major city. To their credit, security forces were fast on the scene, but how did it happen at all? This comes at a time when the conservative government is emphasising the need for peace talks with the Taliban. Once again, this incident raises the question that many outraged commentators have posed: what is there to discuss? And where do discussions begin when one party seeks the destruction of the state as its basic starting point?

Secondly, terrorism aims – as its name implies – to create terror. As I sat in London last night, watching the news and running through a list of friends and relatives in Karachi and their travel plans, I certainly felt that. But in much of Pakistan – particularly Karachi, a city beset by more than three decades of political and terrorist violence – people live in a chronic state of fear. It is mundane and normalised, a boring fact of life that hovers in the back of people’s minds and becomes more acute only when incidents like this raise the stakes. When I lived in Karachi I was struck by how people’s energies are directed simply towards getting on with things. Rioting breaks out, or a terror attack, or sectarian violence, and the first response is not panic, but how to get home, how to check on friends and family, and how to ensure that basic needs will be met. In this way, the fear is not debilitating, it is simply – tragically – a fundamental fact of life.

Today, recriminations will start. There have been reports that some of the gunmen were Uzbek, which provides a neat excuse for those within Pakistan who wish to deflect the debate away from the country’s very real homegrown militancy problem. Already, many are asking – with some justification – how the security agency failed to deflect such an attack. On social media last night, many were distressed: “I don’t know how much more of this we can take.” For people in Karachi, and across Pakistan, this is just one more assault on their right to a normal life.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle