Protesters condemn the death of Naqibullah Mehsud, whose family say he was killed by police in a so-called "encounter killing" in Karachi, Pakistan, on January 22. Photo: Reuters /Akhtar Soomro

Pakistan has been traumatized by the news that four people, including a woman and a 13-year-old girl, were shot dead in an allegedly fake police “encounter” near Sahiwal in Punjab.

A man identified as Khalil was traveling by car to a wedding with his family and a friend when the incident occurred. His three lucky children – two daughters and a son – survived the attack as they were sitting in the trunk of the car.

The police version of the story is that the male passenger, allegedly a terrorist known as Zeeshan, opened fire at Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) officers, who returned fire, killing him and the three others.

However, witnesses said the CTD officers opened fire on the car without provocation. No weapon was recovered from the car. The officers, it is claimed, then took the three children sitting in the trunk to a petrol pump and left them there.

Later, the children were taken to a hospital where one of them told medical staff that his parents were killed by the police and that his father kept shouting at them to not to open fire. His last words, according to the boy, were: “Take the money if you want but do not shoot.”

Later, a video surfaced on the Internet that clearly showed the CTD officers open fire on the car and that the police claims were false as not a single bullet was fired by the passengers. However, the PTI-led Punjab and Federal governments continue to defend the incident, saying the CTD only wanted to kill Zeeshan. Punjab Law Minister Raja Basharat described the incident as “collateral damage” and said the CTD only wanted to kill Zeeshan and had no intention of killing Khalil or his family.

This is not the first time officials have defended fake encounters. Just a year ago, Naqeeb Ullah Mahsood was killed in a fake encounter in Karachi by the encounter specialist Rao Anwar. The encounter was proven to be fake but Anwar still roams freely as he enjoys the full backing of the state and its agencies.

One of the militants behind the Army Public School massacre, Ehsan Ullah Ehsan, the former spokesperson for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, was also granted a pardon by the state as he surrendered and now he is living his life as though nothing happened.

This has been the tragedy of Pakistan for a long time. The state that was supposed to be about social welfare turned into a security state obsessed with defending itself from the self-created global conspiracies that are supposedly intent on eliminating Pakistan.

The security state is run on the narrative of jihad, war, and self-defense. You will always find apologists for incidents like the Sahiwal massacre who will try to characterize incidents like this as collateral damage. Then there is also an unconscious social acceptance of the killings. Minds are fed with the extremist narratives that Pakistan, being a security state and atomic power, is the center of attention of the whole world, which is conspiring to destroy it.

So in order to keep the masses safe, the army and the security and law enforcement agencies have to take extrajudicial steps to make sure that plots against the country are foiled. Children grow up listening to stories that glorify war and celebrate Muslims who conquered the world. They hear about how Pakistan is going through very testing times so their rights cannot be respected.

Since there is no concept of critical thinking and the value of life, incidents like the Sahiwal massacre happen every now and then. No one even bothers to think that even if a terrorist was driving the car, the constitution of Pakistan – and basic morality – do not permit law enforcement agencies to open fire on suspects unprovoked. Such actions amount to extremism, and we must not allow it to become socially acceptable.

If the terrorist Ehsan Ullah Eshan and the encounter specialist Rao Anwar had been held accountable for their actions, perhaps the officers involved in the Sahiwal massacre would have thought twice before opening fire.

We live in a strange country in which the judges visit hospitals like politicians instead of dispensing justice, the army involves itself in politics and bars everyone from criticizing its policies, and the masses believe whatever narrative of extremism they are fed.

The Sahiwal massacre was not collateral damage – it was cold-blooded murder

Instead of condemning the incident, the law minister of Punjab, by describing the Sahiwal massacre as collateral damage, is making it painfully clear that the ruling elite are not ready to change the rotten narratives used to control the masses.

The Sahiwal massacre was not collateral damage – it was cold-blooded murder. Four people are dead and the surviving children will be haunted for life. For the rest of society, it is business as usual. The media will show some emotional news packages to fill the slots, people will discuss it on social media and around the coffee table, and then things will move on until the same kind of incident happens again.

Pakistani society is not willing to accept the norms of the 21st century because we have been poisoned by toxic narratives of hate and extremism that make encounter killings seem morally tolerable.

A joint investigation report on this incident or law enforcement reforms will never stop fake encounter killings until the state focuses on social welfare instead of security, and society attaches more value to human life.

The Sahiwal incident is not collateral damage – it is a reminder that the social contract between the state and its citizens is one-sided. The citizens have been paying the price for bad state policies. It is a glimpse of the ugly reality of a society where the ruling elite prevails at the expense of ordinary citizens and keeps them chained to the exploitative and unjust social order.

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