A commando led me through the Pakistan school auditorium last Saturday where terrorists had interrupted students' lessons with an indiscriminate barrage of bullets four days earlier. The floor had been scrubbed clean of students' blood, but craters still marked the walls like augmented bee holes in a plank. The officer, still visibly shaken, stared somberly at the spots where he had seen the splattered brains of children during the military's counter attack. Seven Taliban gunmen slaughtered 148 people — 132 of them children — before they were stopped.
Across the sprawling 21-acre campus, the victims' youthful faces smiled from photos placed on memorial wreaths. Amidst the tributes to the children were handwritten messages promising retribution against Tehrik-e-Taliban, the group behind the massacre: "We will hang them," "We will crush TTP," "We will never forget you and make them pay."
Two days after the school attack, Pakistan ended its six-year unofficial ban on the death penalty in terror cases. Six terrorists convicted on previous terrorism charges have been hanged, and it appears the government is planning to execute hundreds more. Pakistanis, enraged by the child massacre, have widely supported the hangings, but the international community has been critical of the sudden move. Amnesty International called Pakistan's lifting of the death-penalty moratorium a "knee-jerk reaction that does not get at the heart of the problem." Human Rights Watch said, "Pakistan's government has chosen to indulge in vengeful blood-lust."
Pakistan has been victimized by the pain and horror of terrorism innumerable times. Churches, mosques, markets, airports — nothing has been spared. This time, the terrorists hit hard where it hurts most: Our children. Militancy in Pakistan has reached its climax. The normal rules of the world do not apply.
Since the moratorium was put in place, terrorist attacks on civilians in Pakistan have only increased. In 2012, a Taliban gunman shot activist Malala Yousafzai, then 15, on her way home from school. In September 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack on a church in Peshawar killed 127 Christians. The Pakistan government has attempted dialogues with the opposition to no avail. These are militants who play soccer with the heads of decapitated men. They storm schools and kill children point blank. The Taliban's mindset is that of brutality.
The officer who walked me through the Army Public School in Peshawar said he has not been able to sleep since the siege. The images of children's dismembered bodies haunt him. As we stood in the auditorium, he slid a mobile phone out of his pocket. He scrolled through graphic photos, showing me the images he captured of the attack's aftermath: Children were shot straight through their eyes. Shrapnel was buried in their flesh. Excessive blood blurred any distinction of one body from another. Similar images shared on social media have fueled outbursts of rage across Pakistan, unifying much of the country behind calls for public executions of terrorists. A mother of three told me that knowing terrorists were being hanged helped her sleep at night. The retribution brings her solace.
We are at war with the Taliban, whose agenda is to destabilize Pakistan and create its own state that eschews international rules of logic and humanity. This school massacre is our Sept. 11. This time, Pakistanis have come out galvanized to say we will "never forget." Force has to be used and the government has now accelerated its attacks on militants.
Certainly, the executions will come with their own backlash. In 2013, the Taliban said it would consider government executions of its men on death row an act of war. There are fears that the Taliban could stage prison breaks and other attacks in retribution. But the government has taken steps to upgrade jail security substantially. Calling off announced executions now would send the wrong message about Pakistan's strength and resolve against its enemy. The government also must heed concerns that Pakistan's flawed legal system will lead to the execution of innocents. Capital punishment should not be used indiscriminately, but rather only in cases against known terrorists.
For the first time, Taliban apologists have been marginalized. Opposition groups previously viewed as a softer arm of the Taliban have now united with the government, supporting the use full force against these most brutal militants. Pakistan is making no distinction between the good and bad Taliban. Hundreds of civilians have protested outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad, where the chief cleric, Abdul Aziz, has refused to condemn the massacre.
While the Pakistan government has responded swiftly with executions, it must also adopt a long-term approach that quashes the extremist ideology. Many madrassas in Pakistan preach extreme forms of religion, inciting children with anti-Western propaganda. It will take decades to educate generations of brainwashed children. Religious textbooks in schools and madrassas must be monitored for hate speech and extreme views. Tolerance of minority groups such as Christians and Ahmadis in the country will have to be inculcated from an early age. But in the short-term, executions are being fast-tracked amid a continuing public outcry for a tough response to combat the greatest terrorist threat that Pakistan has ever encountered. Brutal acts of warfare cannot be combated with diplomacy. The untimely and brutal killings of 132 school children has united Pakistanis to demand a concerted effort to eliminate terrorists. We must act now.
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Mina Sohail is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.