The world seems full of crises and disasters: from political stasis and racial standoffs in Europe and the United States, to the classic conflicts of capitalism in “emerging” economies (inequality, weakening states, authoritarianism), to tribal conflicts and sectarian uprisings in the Middle East and Africa. But the small coffins of Peshawar’s students are the heaviest burden on our conscience.
The murder of children crushes our soul. It destroys the already frail hope, without which life becomes unbearable, that there is justice in our world. Adults commit unspeakable atrocities against each other in the name of religion, race, nation and profit. But none of our many competing gods has yet explained why the innocent young should suffer for the sins of adults.
The killing of 132 children in Peshawar violates the shared assumptions that have regulated the conduct of humanity for millennia. Some unshakeable tenets, which the fiercest partisans on the left and the right both cherished, have been trampled into the earth. It is why our grief is not assuaged by the ritual condemnation of international statesmen and editorialists, the cool analysis of terrorism experts, or the retaliatory measures of politicians and generals.
Nor is it alleviated by jeremiads against allegedly anti-modern Islam, or the unique depravity of the Pakistani Taliban. The group’s apparent enemy, Pakistan’s security establishment, has itself created and sponsored some of the most vicious militant organizations in South Asia. Demagogues in Sri Lanka and India demonstrate that civilian rule is no insurance against extremism. The massacre of children has occurred in the same fortnight that a former vice-president of the world’s biggest democracy claimed that he would authorize torture again if need be.
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We cannot precisely diagnose a crisis that seems so all- encompassing – the life-denying nihilism that hangs over the world like smog. It does hint at insidious decay in the very institutions and processes – families, education, media and inherited patterns of culture – through which basic values such as individual self-restraint are transmitted.
This is true not only of brutalized contestants in an endless war. There seems to be a pervasive uncertainty in even the world’s relatively peaceful zones about what one generation should pass on to the next, or how it should define the duties and responsibilities of being human.
Formal education, reduced to vocational training by anxious parents and teachers, no longer effectively insulates against the mental confusion and hideously distorted urge for transcendence that makes a corporate executive in Bangalore turn into a fervent tweeter on behalf of Islamic State. Many of the young today are nurtured by and mature intellectually in new communities of meaning on the Internet, where everything seems permitted. In the resulting moral vacuum, deracinated and estranged young men succumb to a grandiose will to power, and an infatuation with charismatic figures and utopian movements.
Something more than just economic and political distress must explain the worldwide proliferation of men who espouse spine-chilling convictions and fantasies of mass murder. We cannot afford to renounce the possibility of achieving a more democratic, free and just society through political change. Yet we can no longer believe that the enabling conditions of nihilistic violence or the apocalyptic mind-set can be removed by reform or modification of public policy alone, let alone by military retaliation.
The blood of innocent children rouses us to drastic action. But it is not cowardly to acknowledge problems to which there are no stock sociopolitical remedies, and to grasp the unprecedented nature of the threats in our time to human life, freedom and dignity. Certainly, however deep our revulsion to atrocities perpetrated by all sides – sectarian or secular, governments or terrorists – it won’t help to blame religion for a phenomenon that is so clearly rooted in a catastrophic loss of the religious sense.
Pankaj Mishra, a Bloomberg View columnist, is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” among other books.