There is a special kind of atavistic horror when terrorists attack places of worship. These strikes aim at decimating not only the life and limb of innocents but also destroying a community’s faith and spirituality, the very qualities that distinguish human beings from barbarians. As bombs ripped through churches and top end hotels on Easter Sunday and small children were killed while saying their prayers, Sri Lankans entered into their own interpretation of living hell. Christians could only echo the anguished words of Jesus Christ when he said, ‘forgive them for they know not what they do…’
A treacherous quicksand of political lies
But let us step back apace. Forgiveness aside, this nation is not comprised of idiots to accept this ‘I did not know’ explanations proffered unblushingly by the President, the Prime Minister and Ministers. The great efficacy with which the police and intelligence services acted in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks suggests that there was no intelligence failure as touted. It was simply that political pressure coupled with stupidity held preventive concrete action criminally in abeyance. Put bluntly, this atrocity happened because of Sri Lanka’s politicians, no more and no less. Clueless, bumbling and grossly ignorant, they stumbled their way into a treacherous quicksand of lies, prevarication and infamy. Each manifest absurdity suceeded another.
Grinning Ministers informed us on national television in the first press conference after the attack that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had not been invited to the National Security Council meetings since the October coup last year. But that is no excuse whatsoever. This problem did not come about during the past six months; it had a far longer gestation period. And indeed, jihadist radicals in the East and elsewhere were being closely monitored for years by Sri Lankan intelligence. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, a veritable arsenal of weapons is being recovered by police commandos and intelligence who obviously know exactly where to go and what ‘safehouses’ to pinpoint.
Sheer commonsense would tell us that much of this was known beforehand. No other explanation is conceivable. Yet no preventive action was taken. Why? Was the impunity attached to a few politicians courted by both the Government and the Opposition for their vote banks in the East, the answer? The ‘go slow to act’ of Sri Lankan intelligence monitoring coupled with the brushing aside of specific warnings by Indian intelligence speaks to far more than mere carelessness. The President and the Prime Minister owe this country an explanation, beyond their asinine ‘I did not know’ stories. The resignation of a horrendously inept Defence Secretary and calling for the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to step down will not do.
Dealing with uncomfortable realities
In fact, the last two days have been particularly excruciating as those in command wilted under extraordinary pressure. President Maithripala Sirisena lost himself in a morass of unconvincing explanations, culminating in a ridiculous claim that all this would be dealt with ‘in a few days.’ The Prime Minister could only say that Sri Lanka’s law did not give the power to deal with those having links to foreign terrorist organisations. This explanation is as false as it is silly. I do not propose to enumerate the laws that could be used for this purpose. But self-evidently and on the Prime Minister’s statement itself, narrowly tailored laws or amendments to existing laws could have been brought in upon intelligence disclosures of jihadi extremism, if the Government felt that it lacked the needed legal force. Why was it not done?
This week’s tragic events puts the inevitable seal on the argument that Sri Lanka should not have counter-terrorism legislation at all. What is called for is a more measured and strategic approach. A harsh counter-terror law following Western models is not the answer. If that heedless way is chosen, we will be thrust into a playground for global forces of terror and counter-terror compared to which, previous domestic conflicts will be a walk in the park. Emergency regulations currently in force must be examined when space permits. However at least here, there is periodic parliamentary control of the state of emergency and the Supreme Court has the benefit of excellent cursus curiae requiring emergency regulation to conform to constitutional safeguards, provided judicial fortitude is shown.
There are lessons for others as well. It is a trite truth that just as all Tamils are not terrorists, all Muslims are not Salafi-inspired jihadists. But the spread of Wahabism had been an open secret from the Rajapaksa years, to the extent that the non-Wahabist dead were not allowed to be buried in Kattankudy and jihadists in that area had spread their tentacles elsewhere. Yet critiques of this phenomenon were met by cries of ‘victimhood.’ Pundits claiming exclusive ‘analytical’ perspectives through funded ‘projects on reconciliation’ questioned opinions of ‘ordinary’ residents of multi-ethnic communities in Mawanella and elsewhere who complained of increased conservatism in their Muslim neighbours.
I have experienced this reaction myself, when briefly touching on the responsibility of Muslim politicians in the radicalisation of their voter bases. Email responses have asked why there is no focus on Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism as impetus for this radicalisation, even though this factor had been repeatedly acknowledged in these columns. But the point is that one wrong cannot be justified by another. Now we are in undeniably new terrain. Islamic State jihadism which inspired the Easter Sunday attacks must be placed in its own and deeply frightening context of a monster, born at least in part out of the West’s historical transgressions in the Middle East.
The remarkable resilience of a nation
So as Sri Lanka becomes engulfed in grotesquely unfamiliar religious extremism, the one comfort has been the exemplary behaviour of affected communities since that bloody Easter Sunday. Wise preachings by Catholic and Christian clergy that ‘meeting violence with counter-violence is not the Christian way’ were taken to heart even in Negombo whose residents are not particularly famed for their restraint. Despite isolated incidents, the resilience of a shocked and angry nation has been remarkable. The courage of police officers and security forces conducting relentless investigations, despite loss of lives, has been commendable. This exemplifies the best of Sri Lanka but does not excuse the criminal behaviour of the political command.
If political negligence was at heart here, (taken at its best possible meaning), and if intelligence had warned of an attack on the Presidential Secretariat or on Temple Trees, would similar apathy have prevailed? This is all of a piece with how the police responded or more accurately, did not respond to the attack on the Methodist Prayer Centre in Anuradhapura earlier this month when a provincial councilor of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ran amok.
This responsibility of properly addressing religiously motivated attacks lies equally on both the Government and the Opposition. With chilling presentiment, it was questioned in these column spaces last Sunday as to whether the State would be called upon to provide security to all Sri Lanka’s churches? Those words have proved to be sadly and forebodingly true.
And now, in the wake of unforgivable political failures, we are left with grievous loss, as individuals, as families, as communities and as a nation. Who will atone for this?