Reflections After Terrorism at the Marriot

I had just ended a telephone conversation when the unmistakable sound of a blast pierced the dull post-iftari atmosphere. Soon I landed with my 14-year Mustapha who lives only some meters away from the Marriot. He and his mother were visibly shaken since it appeared a close call. Glass from shattered windows had flown all over. God was kind, Mustapha and his mother were safe. But we were not ok. Many Pakistanis had been killed and injured. As we climbed the roof-top a disturbed Mustapha reported that Marriott now looked like a bar-b-q. Fire and human flesh had mixed.

Standing three hours outside the Marriott, hundreds witnessed the unfolding tragedy. Fire was gradually spreading. We stood saved and one removed from the tragedy of those who were killed, burnt and injured. But we were not ok. Collectively, we are not ok. We cannot be until the prevailing acute internal security crisis begins to recede.

The Chief Commissioner (CC) and the Police Chief stood as ambulances parked outside the burning Marriott. The CC didn’t rule out missile attacks on the hotel as we stood outside witnessing the fourth and fifth floors on fire. He said he had called the 111 brigade for logistical support and the Air Force for helicopters to perhaps rescue those trapped on the top floors. There were no reports about when they actually came.

The teary-eyed owner Sadruddin Hashwani kept receiving news of all those who fell in the ‘line of duty.’ His own family was safe and he stood to get count of those who has fallen from his Marriott team. His son Murtaza recalled how the hotel security had called him to report about the truck which had arrived at the gate and had some ‘stuff burning in it." As Murtaza approached the U-turn heading towards the Marriott gate the security guards urged him to go away since the truck had some "explosives" loaded in it. Just as he drove towards the Punjab House the truck had exploded.

Similarly, two doctors who arrived to tend to a terribly ill hotel guest found themselves stuck behind the explosives laden truck. They reprimanded the security guards for not clearing the entrance. The guard advise they run for their lives since something in the truck was on fire. In the reverse gear the two doctors literally fled the place. The Marriott security chief kept saying his men had stood there and performed their duties till the last; a fact that the recorded video of the truck’s arrival at the Marriott gate, released by the Ministry of interior, clearly underscores. They performed according to their tutored script and within the limits of what equipment was available to them. They indeed died with ‘their boots on.’

Meanwhile, in the crucial moments of the rescue operation i.e. the beginning of the Operation, Islamabad’s team was not able to perform effectively. The water pressure in the water hose was insufficient to extinguish the fire on the top floors. CDA sprinkler helicopter minus night vision were no good. Some rescue workers searched for the living or the dead near the crystal ball room. All else including the lobby and Nadia was gutted. The heat was unbearable while some stench was emerging. The rescue operation seemed inadequate. Workers were debilitated because of lack of equipment. As fire raged no fire men could be seen running around with water hoses, no one barging to the floors where guests were trapped. Many desperate to be saved burnt unattended, including perhaps those whose desperate SOS wave was captured by television cameras.

Stunned I followed a colleague towards the crater. On the way, which seemed long, tedious and depressing I saw an armed US Marine maybe in his early twenties. He looked as helpless as all the rest. "Are you from the media", I asked him somewhat foolishly. Perhaps because I was fearful of not making him feel more uncomfortable than he already was. "No I am from the security and I am trying to connect to my colleagues" he responded somewhat uneasily. Standing inside , the burning Marriot’s exit gate, this Marine went largely unnoticed. In death and destruction the fault-lines can blur. A Marine on a normal day, against the back drop of US ground attacks and killing of innocent Pakistanis, would have in the least heard an earful. In a crowded space his security would have been an issue. Not here. Death was calling the shots. Indirectly, what and who the Marine represented, that too was part of, if not a partial cause of Pakistan’s unfolding and reiterative tragedies. But for that moment, in the expanding zone of death, destruction and fire, the Marine was completely ignored.

I carried on towards the carter. It almost seemed identical to ‘ground zero.’ What was identical I thought. Not the structure or size but the feeling of emptiness and vulnerability that hit me when I had first seen ground zero in New York. The huge crater in New York, as if had stared at me defiantly to say on behalf of the enraged ‘we too can hit back.’ No matter what their cause and who they killed but the act of 9/11 was criminal, was sinful I had said to myself then. But I couldn’t help feeling that ground zero’s mega-crater was a message of the ‘other’, of the desperate to their ‘adversary.’ See this is the punishment of the weak to the unjust.

One’s chain of thought often follows a logic constructed generally from experiential wisdom. Hence the dictates of wisdom are not always common. I am sure many of my American friends visiting ground zero do not experience this internal dialogue. They often bring flowers, pray or observe silence for those who so tragically and brutally were killed. For them it is black and white. No matter what complaints they may have against their governments, they respect their government, they connect with it and they also fear it. It generally delivers to the people.

Today, the overwhelming majority of the Americans have bought into the Bush’s administration’s notion of Home land security. Speeches criticizing Bush aside US presidential candidate Barrack Obama too stands robustly behind the security dogma of Homeland security, at all costs. The costs have included war on Afghanistan and on Iraq. An now they are all intellectualizing and legitimizing within this framework the need to expand the war into Pakistan.

It was precisely this belief that compelled Obama to declare after the terrorist attack on Marriott that for the safety and security of the United States terrorism in Pakistan must be defeated. He and John McCain both will pursue Bush’s policy conducting ground attacks on Pakistani territory- attacks that undermine Pakistan’s Homeland security given how the US overt presence is a red herring for the people who constitute the casualty rows and whose family and friends are killed also because of US drone attacks mostly in the tribal areas and the NWFP and now beyond. But the American thinking is crafted by the primary human instinct to survive. The post 9/11 fear of death has naturally triggered their urge to live. No matter how their government manages, as long as it keeps them safe, its unholy and illegal mess abroad is generally accepted. At least until at home the costs do not climb up.

Anyhow, the Marriott crater too set me thinking. I wasn’t sure how many of the dozens of Pakistanis standing around the crater at that moment, stood like the Americans standing around their ground zero, were single-mindedly condemning the terrorists behind the Marriott tragedy. Admittedly Pakistan’s case is a complex one and so in the thinking Pakistani mind ‘black and white’ notions on terrorism are hard to come by. Equally the notion of standing united against all odds for Homeland security, is weak within the Pakistani society. Moreover, it is unconvincing, especially for Pakistanis whose families and friends became casualties of terrorist, US and Pakistani attacks in the tribal areas and the NWFP and now even beyond. The government needs to provide a strong and credible leadership to bring the people together at what is clearly Pakistan’s most dangerous moment.