The modifications outside my children’s school are seemingly significant: fortified walls, concrete barriers, barbed wire and the ageing sniper who is often caught scratching his ear, but the reality is different — the walls are just as penetrable and the children just as susceptible to a terror attack just like the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar was on that horrendous December day. Dropping them off at school knowing this is keeping with the Abrahamic tradition of sacrifice that I cannot fathom but participate in nonetheless. Day after day, morning after morning, my children are brought to the altar, led by a throbbing heart and two weary feet. Every afternoon they are led back home being spared.
Defeating terrorism is to hold firm to courage, to reject it in your core and to look it in the face even when you fear oblivion. Fear that your child carries the message that Pakistan aspires to be: prosperous, egalitarian, just and peaceful. The message we teach them about its secular founder and its democratic struggles. On a more human level, the fear of them scraped by the war of our times. The fear of their tears and pain on one hand and, on the other, the tender dreams of them making it big in the world and of doing their country proud.
We have no countryside to send our children to like the children of London in World War II. Even British Prime Minsiter Gordan Brown is now working closely with the Pakistani government to protect Pakistani schools from terrorists. This is heartening for Pakistani parents but how far does this go to contain extremism and deter attacks against schools? The war is everywhere in Pakistan. To isolate children from cities currently on the terrorist radar means to remove them from the benefits metropolises provide: education, exposure and experience. Immigration is only an option for those who have little ideological connection to this land or connection they can separate physically in any event.
Incidentally, the very thing that separates us from the animals — our ability to experience the reality of the hundreds of Pakistani children who died at the hands of terrorists only in the past few months and our ability to feel the terror of child activists like Malala — is the very thing that corrupts our courage. Our courage is the only weapon against terrorism. Courage comes at a cost. The cost of thinking of your children as not your own but your nation’s. It is a paradigm shift that requires superhuman faculties. Parents struggle with trying to cultivate it every morning at the school gates where snipers have ear itches.
At the rate educational institutions are being targeted in Pakistan, it is not just a probability anymore that something terrible may befall us if we stick it through; it is a possibility. This thought works to infect the spine of all positive human capabilities: creativity, self-expression, innovation and happiness. The terror creeps over everything beautiful, everything sacred. Children are not spared from the venom of the possible. After all, there is very little difference between real terror and one that is vividly imagined. I have had to answer, mutely, why the terrorists want to kill children and what if they are confronted, should they back down, fight or perhaps plead to be spared? Perhaps the most difficult of all questions was what the new average lifespan of Pakistani children is.
Medical science tells us there are far reaching effects of trauma on the developing young mind. Threat and perceived threat have that toxic ability to contaminate all initiative and sprit. My children make English composition sentences that more often are dark and morbid. In killing some of our children the terrorists have attempted to kill all of our children’s drive to take on the world. Children are magicians though and magicians believe in magic. In wondrous ways they come out of dark corners and claw back to vitality. They smile, they sing, they draw and they put up feisty arguments to have their fun. A child wants a quick end to crying and a slower end to laugher. This makes them the axis on which we pivot our philosophy on life.
“Let me tell you a riddle Mum,” my child said. “So imagine a terrorist pulls a gun to your head and asks you to close your eyes so he can shoot, what would you do to save yourself?” I struggled with this one on many levels. Eventually I gave up. “How do you save your life?” I asked. “You stop imagining it,” said my child.