The blast in Z Block Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Lahore that killed 10 people and injured 35 has now officially been characterised as a gas cylinder blast and not a terrorism attack.
However, there are still sceptics questioning the official version. Be that as it may, the event and the following bomb scare in Gulberg, Lahore and their effect deserve reflection. If the first blast in DHA caused its share of consternation, fear, panic and terror in the locality, the subsequent scare in Gulberg added a dimension never before seen in the city, or arguably anywhere in the country in all the years that terrorism has been a fact of life. Consider. Reports of a bomb planted in a restaurant on the Main Boulevard Gulberg triggered a massive response by the police, Rangers and army.
Amidst the wailing of ambulance sirens, the scene resembled a ‘war zone’. While the bomb disposal squad and law enforcement agencies were scouring the restaurant and an adjoining commercial tower, both of which they eventually declared clear of any explosives, rumours flew thick and fast, exaggerated and exacerbated by the electronic and social media.
These rumours had explosions occurring in two other restaurants, one close by the first rumoured threatened one, the other located in the Main Market Gulberg. Though both mercifully turned out to be false, all these goings on after the morning’s DHA blast compounded the fear and terror. While the security forces asked all shops, banks and markets to shut down, people milled about the scene, intermingling with TV vans and media personnel covering the scene. By the time the threatened buildings were cleared and the rumours turned out to be just that, the scare had also closed schools and educational institutions and frightened parents ferried their children to the safety of their homes while other citizens too took the route to safety. The result: the city of teeming millions came to a grinding halt, with little or no traffic on the normally bustling roads.
Terrorists can and do rely not only on actual bombs and other attacks, they also use psychological warfare to cow down a populace. Something along these lines transpired in Lahore on February 23. Whether this will become a recurring pattern in the deadly trade of the terrorists remains to be seen. Nevertheless, there are lessons here to be learnt.
The rush to broadcast unverified news on the electronic media for the sake of being the first to break the news and garner top ratings has eroded any semblance of editorial responsibility on TV. To add to the problem, social media practitioners are all too ready to post rumours and these then get swiftly disseminated to a wide audience. This ‘trigger-happy’ media landscape inadvertently serves the purposes of the terrorist psychological warriors. Let us not forget that one of the weapons in the arsenal of the terrorists is the oxygen of publicity, which they crave and in contemporary times have no problem tapping.
The timing of the false bomb scare is significant. It followed barely two hours after the blast in DHA. Whether that blast was an accident or a terrorist attack, it laid the groundwork for the Gulberg bomb scare to be successful beyond perhaps even its authors’ imagination. Shutting down a metropolis like Lahore through such inexpensive means must count as a first and significant psychological victory by the purveyors of mayhem and bloodshed. The authorities too did not help by putting out contradictory statements all afternoon about the DHA incident and failing to definitively inform about the later false alarm.
In the battle against asymmetrical warfare, the media, particularly electronic, must exercise more responsibility, failing which the regulator should come into play. The authorities for their part must refrain from adding to the confusion and uncertainty by foregoing unconsidered statements before the facts are well and truly established. Not to do so invites a loss of credibility and merely fuels the rumour machine.
The Lahore incident highlights our handling of terrorist or potentially terrorist events in a haphazard, knee-jerk and precipitate manner. Hardly a course to be recommended for a state and society in the middle of a determined fight against the merchants of death and destruction in our midst.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2017