Feuding Over Coverage of the Lahore Attacks Masks Violent Reality

By Upumanyu Lahiri Pakistani nuns hold candles during a vigil for victims of Sunday's deadly suicide bombing in a park, Monday, March 28, 2016 in Lahore, Pakistan. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary)

I woke up on the morning of March 27th to a rude surprise as Facebook’s Safety Check asked me to mark myself as “safe.” I was bewildered and still disoriented from sleep. What on earth had happened? Was it an earthquake which was known to be common here in California that I had miraculously slept through? Then on rechecking the notification I saw that it was about an explosion at a park in Lahore. Due to some inexplicable error I was receiving the Safety Check notification of the blasts in Pakistan. I later learned that this it wasn’t just me; due to a glitch, several people as far as the UK and United States received the notification. My relief took away from the initial shock I may otherwise have felt at this barbaric but sadly almost predictable tragedy. The attacks were carried out by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban splinter group, to target Christians celebrating Easter. If there was one good thing that Facebook’s gaffe did, it was that at least several people who may otherwise have never heard of this attack actually got to know about it.

There have been accusations against those mourning the Brussels attacks a few days before, that they have failed to do the same for the Lahore attacks, and thus are only concerned about ‘Western lives’ and not the lives of people living elsewhere. Such allegations are unfair for several reasons. That is not to say such criticism is never valid. For example, in the aftermath of the Paris and Beirut attacks last year, when the international media focused almost exclusively on Paris while ignoring the deadly attacks in Lebanon, it could be accused of an ‘empathy gap.’ Facebook got a great deal of grief for activating their Safety Check and flag filter for France but not for Lebanon. But this time the discrepancy in coverage of the attacks in Belgium, a ‘western country’ and the attacks in Pakistan were much lesser. Even Facebook activated its Safety Check for the Lahore attacks (botched up though it might have been). Besides, people will feel more shock, sadness, happiness or any other emotion when people geographically or culturally close to them are affected. For example, as a Bengali Indian, I care more about the recent attacks on secular bloggers and activists in Bangladesh than most Americans would as I share the same language and culture. Whether this makes us humans tribalistic on a basic level is a separate question. Moreover, it is also tribalistic to perpetuate ‘solidarity sneering’ as British Sudanese columnist Nasrine Malik calls it in her great piece on the topic in The Guardian. It dehumanizes the victims of the attacks for the sake of a petty tit-for-tat game.

Finally, another reason why the Lahore attacks were not ‘covered’ as much in the media is due to the depressing reality that this level of violence and bloodshed has become virtually normalized in Pakistan. It is estimated that around 35,000 people have died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan in recent years. One of the reasons for this attack was the Taliban lashing out against the Pakistan Army’s recent crackdown on them and other militant groups. In June 2014, the Pakistani Army finally launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb,  comprehensive military operation against the jihadists who held sway throughout the country but particularly in its northwestern frontiers, after years of attempting to ‘negotiate’ with them. Despite internally displacing almost a million people, the operation has had some success in weakening the Taliban, but the Taliban’s response has been brutal. In Dec. 2014, Taliban gunmen attacked a school attended mostly by the children of army officers in Peshawar, a city in the country’s restive Northwestern frontier and brutally slaughtered 145 people, most of whom were children, in an attack that sent shock waves throughout the world. The latest attack should be seen as yet another step in the Taliban’s retaliation against the State for targeting them.

One bleak perspective of the situation sees that the level of violence will likely only increase in the weeks and months to come as the Pakistani Army continues its operation of targeting militants and the Taliban responds with more violent attacks on civilians. A more optimistic outlook would consider that the Taliban’s lashing out is a signal that it is vulnerable and feeling the heat and it is on the path to being destroyed.

According to recent reports, more than 90 percent of North Waziristan, the region with the maximum violence has been cleared of militants. If the Taliban is completely vanquished, it may finally bring Pakistan’s endless cycle of violence to an end. But given the way things have gone so far, is that too much to hope?