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16 December 2014

In Pakistan, fear has become mundane – will the Peshawar attack change anything?

Over a hundred people are dead, many of them children. Even in the terror-stricken context of Pakistan, this attack is shocking.

By Samira Shackle

By now, you are probably familiar with the bare facts of the case. This morning, at around 10am local time (5am GMT), militants wearing army uniforms stormed a school in Peshawar, a violence-wracked city in Pakistan’s north-west. They killed children and teachers, taking others hostage. At present, the death toll stands at 126. The majority of the dead are aged between 12 and 16. Scores more are injured, and according to spokespeople for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which carried out the attack, hundreds are being held hostage – although the numbers are not verified. The Pakistani army says it has killed six terrorists and is searching for more. The operation is still ongoing.

The Army Public School and Degree College teaches the children of military personnel as well as the children of civilians. The TTP says the attack is revenge for the Pakistani military’s current operation in the tribal areas of Pakistan; it claims it attacked a school “because the government is targeting our families and females”. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced since the military operation began in June. Operation Zarb-e-Azb (literally, “sharp strike”) aims to attack the power structure of the TTP and associated groups, and to clear out the militants’ safe haven once and for all. Since the start of the offensive, Pakistan has been waiting for the reprisal attacks that the group promised.

But even in the blood-soaked context of Pakistan – a country that has lost well over 40,000 innocents to terrorist attacks since 2001 – this morning’s incident in Peshawar is shocking. It is difficult to match the sheer horror and senselessness of the mass slaughter of children. Perhaps aware of the potential damage to its cause, the TTP has said that its gunmen have been instructed “not to kill minor children”; scant comfort for the families of the scores of older children who have already been murdered.

The attack is shocking, but it fits into a wider picture. Terrorism exists to create terror; the feeling that nowhere and nothing is safe, that the very fabric of daily life is under attack. Nowhere is that more evident in Pakistan, a country where health-workers and schoolchildren come under direct attack, where bomb attacks and kidnappings are so frequent that incidents with a low death toll barely make the news, and where public space has become a tense and uncertain terrain. Violence is the constant background music to life, and for the most part, people focus their energies on getting on with things, readjusting their routines – again – to guard against the latest threat. Fear becomes mundane, just another facet of daily life.

Occasionally, there are large-scale incidents, inventive in their brutality, that jolt this apparently unshockable nation. There was the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in 2012, the huge bomb attack on a Hazara Shia snooker hall in January 2013, a spate of assassinations of polio vaccinators that began in late 2012, the bombing of a church in Peshawar in September 2013. Each of these incidents prompts a period of national mourning, a public outpouring of grief, and the question: how much more can we take? There are condemnations from politicians and promises of action. (In this case, the prime minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to personally oversee the operation against the TTP: “These are my children and it is my loss”). And then, in the face of weak state institutions that lack the capacity to take control of the situation, and security forces that do not speak with one voice, very little actually changes. Gradually, as people focus their energies on coping and taking whatever steps they can to protect themselves, things return to business as usual – until the next big scale attack comes around and the country is left reeling and traumatised, again.

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The question now is whether this incident will actually change anything. There is a chance that the sheer brutality of the event will answer some of the internal political debates about how best to tackle the terrorist threat. As recently as spring, the Pakistani government was pursuing talks with the Taliban, even as violent attacks across the country surged. Many in the mainstream political right wing still agitate for appeasement and negotiations rather than a military operation. And amongst the wider population, there is a fault-line of people who explicitly or tacitly support the actions of the TTP and associated groups, even as they suffer the effects of this campaign of terror. Some commentators have suggested that the sheer brutality of this assault will undermine the arguments of those who would like to see negotiations with the TTP, and will perhaps reduce that element of support amongst the wider populace. The group is seeking the destruction of the Pakistani state as its minimum, and speaks only the language of violence. That is no starting point for a meaningful settlement.

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The Pakistani government has announced three days of national mourning. In Peshawar, the process of grieving is only just beginning. The city, located in the restive province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and is situated not far from the militant-plagued tribal areas and the border with Afghanistan, is well used to terrorist attacks, but this incident surpasses the day-to-day violence it has become accustomed to. The horror is crystallised in the fact that local media has reported that the city is running low on coffins.

Culpability for the attack is with the TTP, but also with the authority figures who have given these groups the space to flourish and grow. As Peshawar prepares to bury its dead children, who will stop more from meeting the same fate?