By F.S. Aijazuddin
December 17th, 2015
“WOULD God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” wailed the stricken patriarch King David. A year ago yesterday, on Dec 16, 132 sets of parents in Peshawar had cause to repeat that lament, after the cooling bodies of their children were brought from the Army Public School Peshawar to their homes, to a cooling, home-cooked meal they would never taste.
Today, all those children would have been senior by a year. They would have been taller, heavier, their shoulders broader, their eyes brighter, if only they had been allowed to step into the future that was their right as human beings. Instead, they were slaughtered like gentle lambs that cold morning, fresh young sacrifices in an adult war that knows no rules, heeds no pleas, feels no compassion, that equates the wisp of a human soul with the weight of a single bullet.
The modern historian Niall Ferguson, in his book The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred, describes the 20th century as a modern “hundred years war”. At one level, that seems a light-hearted play on words; at another, it is a chilling premonition that there may never be a day in our lifetime, even during the 100 years of this already crimson century, when a battle will not be raging somewhere in the world.
Today, all those children would have been senior by a year.
Daily, tragedies leapfrog over each other with speed. There is no time to feel present pain because one is still numb from the previous one. Wars like the refugees they spawn are now mobile. Lebanon is overtaken by Afghanistan. Afghanistan yields to Iraq which in turn gives way to Syria. New York leads to Beslan, to Paris, to San Bernardino.
Try googling for a list of non-state terrorist incidents. You will find entries classified according to centuries (1800-1899), then decades (1900-1929; 1930-1949; 1950-1969), then years (1970–2010), and after 2011, half-years. The peripatetic Dr Henry Kissinger once complained: “There can’t be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” The 21st century knows no such limitations. It has a limitless capacity, like Edhi’s mortuaries, to accommodate death.
In ancient times, it was once said that all roads led to Rome. Nowadays, the roads trodden by Islamist militants are said to lead to Pakistan. There may be an element of truth in that, except that no country — not even ours — can afford to remain a surrogate, a ‘womb-for-hire’ for such unnatural Frankenstein’s monsters, the sum of putrid parts.
That is what makes the present blitzkrieg of Islamophobia so unfortunate, so unfair. Ironically, it is now the turn of the Muslim to plead: “Hath not a [Muslim] hands, organs,/ dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with/ the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject/ to the same diseases, healed by the same means,/ warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as/ a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?/ if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison/ us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not/ revenge?”
There are always two aspects to any conflict, two points of view — those of the protagonist and those of his victim; those of the extremist and the cowering moderate; the grating rasp of the cruel muffling the whimpers of the innocent. Pakistan has the unfortunate reputation of being a haven for the first, and an abattoir for the second.
Murderers deserve no separate memorials. They have one already: the scaffold. The memorials to their victims though are visible everywhere — in numerous places, in various forms, most poignantly in couplets composed by poets. The ancient Greek Simonides inspired the 20th-century poet John Edmonds whose unforgettable epitaph reads: “When you go home, tell them of us and say/For their tomorrow, we gave our today.” In the bloodstained classrooms of the Army Public School Peshawar, those lines should be inscribed: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say/we gave our tomorrow for your today.’
There will be a time when the grieving parents of those who were massacred at Peshawar or the relatives of those martyred anywhere in the world will themselves need to be mourned. They will be dying then a second time. They have died once before, when terrorism struck their lives and grief seared their hearts.
The dead are beyond the tendrils of our remorse. Our prayers may or may not benefit them. Our wails cannot reach them. Some consolation though lies in the words of Robert L. Binyon: “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” These lines are often read at memorial services in the West. We can honour our own martyrs by remembering that it is not only you but also them who should be reading these words.
F.S. Aijazuddin is an author.