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Banality of evil in Pakistan

by Mahim Maher

February 29, 2012 | 2:43 am

Karachi has made violence important to me, not just as a resident of this city but as the metropolitan editor of a newspaper. After reading Susan Sontag on ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’ (2002), I began to wonder how we were unknowingly, as journalists, covering Karachi’s violence. Reporters wander back to their desks, bewildered after a chat with me: “I was thinking of doing a story on the victims of the bomb blast,” they’ll say, pitching the idea.\

“Boring.” I will reply. “Focus on something else.”

They hate me for this. They say I am insensitive. But I have not been able to explain that I do not want them to touch a story like that with a ten-foot bayonet unless they can prove to me that they will do it justice.

We tend to fetishize violence, I argue over and over again. I have no idea what I am talking about. But I know that we cannot speak for others who have suffered. I’ve seen too many badly written sob stories to know this much.

In my quest to read about violence, I’ve been recently drawn to the work of Slavoj Zizek. His book ‘Violence: Six Sideway Reflections’ has alerted me to systemic violence that makes so much violence possible. I think I see this in Karachi each day in the outbursts of street violence, drive-by shootings etc.

One form of systemic violence that we are not taking seriously enough is a topic that has gripped the media of late: the enforced disappearances, not just across the country, but specifically in the province of Balochistan.

A long-running insurgency or fight for freedom and separation has been running in this part of Pakistan. Part of the problem is that the province’s rich natural resources have been plundered, or there are plans to extract them, for the benefit of other provinces. Balochistan is suffering economic colonialism by its own government, in a way. It is Pakistan’s largest province/state but it’s least developed.

The development has been stunted not just because of the tribal landlords and chiefs, but because of the absence of the State’s attention. To make their sense of deprivation worse, over the decades, the non-indigenous paramilitary and armed forces have clamped down on the people and land there. The intelligence agencies use government guest houses as torture cells.

One of the many myriad and complicated problems of Balochistan and its Baloch and Pashtun people (among other ethno-linguistic peoples) is of enforced disappearances. The nationalists/freedom-fighters/insurgents/terrorists are picked up and go missing for years. Their bodies turn up mysteriously. (Much of the same thing is happening in my neighbourhing province/state of Sindh as well).

These days the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing cases of the ‘missing people’ – a misleading phrase. Let me bring up one case, being called the Adiala jail case. 

Eleven civilian suspects were facing court martial under the Army Act on charges of attacking the General Headquarters (GHQ) and spy agency’s Hamza Camp base.
They were picked up from Adiala Jail by intelligence agencies after they were acquitted of charges by the court.

The secret agencies have now admitted in the Supreme Court that the 11 men were kept at internment centres. Four of them died in custody of ‘natural causes’. The remaining ones were brought to court with urine bags sticking out of their trousers.

Everyone is hoping that the Supreme Court will take the intelligence agencies to task. How could they pick up men who were acquitted? If a court has set them free, what business does anyone have to take such extra-judicial measures? Do the intelligence agencies not respect a court’s verdict? Are they above the law?

The issue of the ‘missing people’ is not a new one. It has returned to the spotlight because of the chief justice. But just a few years ago, our former president, Pervez Musharraf, (who was once America’s darling, post-9/11), suspended this top judge precisely because he insisted on tracking down these missing people. The chief justice now wants the spy agencies to produce these seven suspects.

There is hope that as the chief justice hauls up the chiefs of the dreaded intelligence agencies (the Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence etc), he will apply the same rule of law to them as they do to civilians.

Meanwhile, a judicial commission in Karachi is recording the statements in the cases of 54 ‘missing’ people. Yesterday my reporter returned frustrated because the media wasn’t allowed inside. She did manage to speak to some of the families when they emerged. One man said that this was the sixth commission he was attending. In the end, isn’t it clear to all of us that the intelligence agencies have these people. They should just give them up.

Yes, this sounds incredibly naïve. But brutalizing people just creates more violence in its spin-off forms.

For me, this open secret, this lie, this silence is one of the many forms of violence people face in Pakistan. And it spins out to implicate many spheres. All of the people who go about their daily lives not thinking about all the people who have disappeared are complicit. All these people are complicit for not exerting pressure on the courts, police, agencies, authorities, president, prime minister, elected representatives to give these people justice. It is here that, for me, Hannah Arendt’s words ring true, for several reasons.

Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jew who escaped the Nazis in 1940, went on to become the first woman professor at Princeton University. In 1961 she was sent by the New Yorker to cover the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her articles were put together in a book in which she coined the phrase, ‘the banality of evil’.

Historian Dr Yaacov Lozowick, a former director of the Yad Vashem Archives explains the term: The ability to commit evil in a way that sounds almost rational or familiar. People who are not actually monsters or particularly ideologically motivated can become cogs in a machine that, under particular extraordinary historical circumstances, makes them commit unbelievable acts of evil.

The banality of evil helps me understand how the members of the intelligence agencies, actual Pakistani men, are able to follow orders from the high command to pick up these people and torture them.
There are no circumstances in which any citizen of Pakistan should be held like this and not produced in a court of law 24 hours after arrest and made aware of the charges against them.

There is NO comparison here between the Holocaust and these enforced disappearances of a few thousand people; I am just saying that Arendt’s theory, which sprang from her intellectual examination of a particular evil, can be, in part, used to explain some forms of evil today. Arendt’s words can be a lesson for us.

Most of all, the banality of evil signals to me, the unthinking ways in which we react to this systemic violence in Pakistan. I used to try to explain this to myself by using the words ‘reader fatigue’. It is a strange phenomenon – our newspaper’s readers react with horror to our coverage of the missing persons trials but little more happens than a few comments on the website. 

Eichmann’s story reminds me of Musharraf as well – ironically because the Pakistani government is preparing to ask Interpol to issue red warrants for his arrest. They want to try him for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. He is perhaps not technically a war criminal – but as many of the Baloch people believe, when it comes to murder of tribal chief Nawab Akbar Bugti during Musharraf’s tenure, our former president should be forced to give us some answers for what he did.

Hannah Arendt felt that Eichmann never realised what he was doing, part of the banality of evil. For Musharraf and all the men in the intelligence agencies, however, I doubt that this is the case.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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I am a 33-year-old journalist in Karachi, Pakistan where I work as the city or metropolitan editor for The Express Tribune, a daily national newspaper in English affiliated...

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