Tuesday, June 21, 2011

All is well...

The unseemly sight of concrete blocks and MP check-posts has now become an integral part of our lives. God only knows when we will be rid of these symbols of insecurity; unless things change drastically, I suspect it may not be during my lifetime.

Having said that, I do try to maintain some sympathy for the poor men manning these posts. Apart from being forced to stand long hours, carrying out what must be a spectacularly mind-numbing activity, they also have to deal with the fact that they are in one of the most thankless jobs in the world. If they start checking everyone indiscriminately, they get indignant people shouting “Do I look like a terrorist?” If they start profiling, they get people criticising how easy it is to get past them – “I could’ve been carrying a bomb, and he didn’t even check!” The poor guys just cannot win! The fact of the matter is, they slow us down and they scrutinise us. We do not appreciate either of these, so naturally we’re always looking for some way to criticise them.

Keeping this in mind, I try to remind myself that the poor guys are doing their jobs and to keep my irritation under check. I’m no expert on security, so I go along with the minimum deterrence argument. After all, if something was to happen, everyone would be questioning the security agencies and not me. I ignore the fact that standing bumper to bumper in a four-lane traffic jam at the checkpost is probably the most vulnerable position one can be in. I tolerate the fact that apart from check posts coming into Lahore, there are now check posts for leaving Lahore - perhaps there is a need to prevent bombs exiting the city. I even go so far as to try to convince myself that the guy staring at the sky while his gun is aimed at me is actually in search of divine guidance. If there is a slight chance that these measures will at least inconvenience terrorists in some minor fashion, perhaps they’re worth it.

Ever so often though, something happens that momentarily shakes even my compromising and somewhat naïve belief in the system.

If you’re driving on the canal road from Thokar Niazbeg towards the city, you will come to a point where you can turn towards Jinnah Hospital or continue straight on the canal. To facilitate an unfettered drive on the canal, there is a division in the road, so that those turning are segregated from the main road. They can also decide to go straight from there, but have to go through the inconvenience of a traffic light.

So, the other day, coming up to this division I noticed that traffic was clogged on the path going straight. Several other people also noticed this and decided to go through the traffic light. Being a stickler for traffic law I decided it was a moral grey area to use the turning lane to go straight and proceeded onwards. Most other people were not burdened by such moral dilemmas and proceeded through the traffic light. As we inched closer to the heart of the congestion I realised the reason for it - a check post. And not just any check post, one with about fifteen armed men standing around it. None of them seemed the least bit concerned with the fact that cars were whizzing past behind their backs in the next lane.

Now, as we are all aware, terrorists are notoriously conscientious drivers. Being nothing like these other boors, they would never dream of using the turning lane for going straight; apart from being unsporting from a security perspective, such an action would be a spectacularly unethical breach of the driving code. So, for that reason, I thought the security guys had their bases covered. I inched closer with this calming thought until a truly terrifying prospect occurred to me. What if there was such a thing as an unscrupulous terrorist? Or, what if in a moment of weakness, or even by accident, a terrorist just went along and did what most of the other people were doing and avoided the check post altogether? It would render the time and energies of those fifteen fine people completely wasted. I know this is a far-fetched idea, but one does ponder a bit when one lives in troubled times.

So, when I was passing through the barriers I decided to share this bone-chilling possibility with one of the security personnel. I stopped my car next to him, pointed behind him and said, “People are just bypassing the check post.” He looked at me silently and then turned away uninterested. Obviously, he had heard this one before. I breathed a sigh of relief and drove on; these guys had already considered the idea. All was safe.