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Answering the terrorists

01 April 2016

ANOTHER Easter, another atrocity in Pakistan — and another attempt to devise a response to heartless fanaticism. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a Taliban offshoot, claimed that one of its members had killed more than 70 people in a public park in Lahore, and injured more than 300. The bomber’s target was Christians, even though the majority of victims of his indiscriminate act appear to have been other Muslims. But this is of no concern to the terrorist group: someone who targets a park where hundreds of children are playing sets no store by innocence.

Many of the Easter addresses from church and political leaders spoke of the contrast between light and darkness. The resurrection signals the triumph of the light, but the final victory is not yet fully realised. Until the last harvest, the wheat and the tares must somehow rub along together. The biblical metaphor has its limits: the perpetrators of violence in Lahore and Brussels were not of a different species from their victims. As human beings, terrorists are still capable of reformation, still in a position to accept grace. The question remains, however, how this can be mediated to them, or, if they are unreachable, how to affect others who might follow them.

The answer, touched upon in many of the messages, was best expressed by John Milton: “In all wise apprehensions, the persuasive power in man to win others to goodness by instruction is greater and more divine than the compulsive power to restrain men from being evil by terror of the law.” This rings true, but the reliance on instruction brings with it three challenges. First, the international character of terrorism means that the instruction to counter it must be universal. Second, the instruction must be wholehearted: the civic authorities in Molenbeek admit that the widespread youth unemployment and an associated lack of hope have made many vulnerable to the lure of extremism.

The third challenge is to recognise that moral instruction is strong enough to turn the hearts of most, but not all. The “terror of the law” must be applied at times. The University of Maryland hosts the Global Terrorism Database. To consult it is to be both impressed and depressed in equal measure. The database for Pakistan lists 2271 terrorist incidents in 2014. In most of these incidents — roadside bombs, gun attacks on politicians and community leaders, and the blowing up of police stations, girls’ primary schools, and military outposts — the assailants are classified as unknown. The result is regions of Pakistan where the population so traumatised and fearful that to express a moderate opinion, or support for a beleaguered minority such as the Christians, becomes an act of courage. Little improvement will be seen without the re-establishment of the rule of law. But, as we have seen in Syria, if this is done without a matching attempt to win others to goodness by instruction, the project is bound to fail. A harrow can only prepare the field. It is the patient diligence of the sower who determines how well the crops grow.

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