On Friday, the honorable Islamabad High Court declared the detention of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi (mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed over 160 people) to be illegal, under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO), sending shockwaves throughout the political and diplomatic missions of Pakistan. Specifically, this court order invited the ire of neighboring India, as well as raised eyebrows from the United States, casting a shadow across Pakistan’s seriousness in prosecuting ‘international terrorists’. Faced with mounting pressure from the international community, on Saturday, the Punjab Home Minister ordered Lakhvis detention for another month.

Simultaneously, in the southern city of Karachi, the debate waged on about the militant wing of MQM (and other political parties) that continues to tear the city at its seams, spilling innocent blood in its wake. This story followed the usual trajectory: damning disclosures by the security agencies, disingenuous defence by MQM officials, chatter across the all our talk-shows, followed by media addresses by a belligerent Altaf Hussain. Bottom line: no real progress made.

In all, these events lay bare the only tangible reality of Pakistan – despite establishing military courts and waging a “war” against militant outfits, we are a country that has still not formulated a concerted national resolve on the only question that matters: that of countering extremism in our society.

The soul of a people, of each nation, is frequently tied – interminably – to a singular issue that destiny calls upon to answer. An issue that defines its character, and for which it will forever be judged in the annals of history. For now, in Pakistan, the quintessential issue – one that will matter more than all others, in the final analysis of history – is how we counter extremism and militancy in our society.

Unless we ‘fix’ the issue of terrorism, all advances made in any other segment of our democracy will, for the most part, remain ineffective. Regardless of a liberal investment regime, how can Pakistan attract foreign capital, till such time that our streets remain an incubator for violence? How can the Constitutional right to education – under Article 25A of the Constitution – be fulfilled, till such time that schools are being blown up in our cities? How can the project of ‘access to justice’ succeed when judges, prosecutors and witnesses fear for their life during, and after, trial? How can the project of universal healthcare succeed, when polio workers are being shot in our villages?

So, what does a deliberate strategy for countering extremism entail? A comprehensive answer (which is far beyond the scope of an Op-Ed) would incorporate discussions about reforming our police and intelligence structure, better monitoring of financial transactions and funding procedures, creation of economic opportunities, eradication of unemployment, and instilling a cultural of (liberal) education. But, for now, alongside these ‘longer-term’ measures, there is an urgent and imminent need of fixing our counter-terrorism narrative, especially as it relates to judicial dicta.

There are two disparate narratives that exist in our society. The first, emanating from the security junta (including the civilian law enforcement, as well as the intelligentsia) argues that our courts must be sympathetic to granting ‘wider’ powers to the law enforcement agencies (within the stretch of the law), in terms of arrest and interrogation, and should allow terrorist suspects to be convicted on circumstantial (minimal?) evidence. The argument of security agencies, stemming from a claim that they understand the ‘realities’ of counter-terrorism and policing better than anyone else, promises that only in this way can we rid our society of the savage terrorists, who live outside the gates of law and humanity, and frequently escape through the clutches of a weak legislation (and an even weaker conviction philosophy). Their final (knock-out) punch rests in their assertion that the due-process of law, and modalities of our criminal justice system, have to be subservient to the project and cause of ‘saving lives’, through detention and conviction of suspected terrorists, even when the same seems to be bordering the fringes of our law. And that the judiciary must find a way to evolve standards that help convict (known) terrorists.

The second narrative, voiced by the legal (and judicial) fraternity, along with human rights’ champions, advocates the romantic ideal that the strength and character of a nation is tested in the way that it applies its Constitutional protections and the law to the most squalid of its members. They argue that the scourge of terrorism, despite its barbarianism, must not compel us to twist the Constitutional freedoms and violate principles of natural justice. That an accused, irrespective of the savagery associated to him, must be afforded the fullest spectrum of procedural protections and substantive defences, available under the criminal justice system. That (illegal) confinement and (torturous) interrogation techniques are unbefitting our Constitutional ethos. And that only in this way, can we be ‘different’ (better!) than the terrorists themselves. That unlike them, we follow the letter and spirit of the law, even if it leads to conclusions that offend our human instinct to dispense summary justice.

The answer to our counter terrorism puzzle, lies somewhere between these two narratives. And finding that balance – where the desire to rid evil through brute force is balanced against the compulsions of doing ‘justice’ according to our compassionate humanity – entails confronting ourselves, in a moment of human honesty, and choosing who want to be as a nation.

Sadly, for now, no comprehensive process has been developed to bring the security agencies and the legal fraternity on the same page for countering terrorism. It seems that everyone – from police personnel, to lawyers, to politicians, to the media – has an opinion on bits and pieces of what counter-terrorism should entail. And frequently, such piecemeal ideas (including exploring of witness protection program, transferring of cases to different geographical locations, extending the time for investigation), find themselves as amendments to the existing law. However, no one – without any exception – has put forth a comprehensive philosophy for countering terrorism.

When will we wake up from this criminal slumber of apathy? When will our lacerated conscience bleed a solution? How much blood will have to spill, how many lives lost, how many families bereft, how much hope extinguished, before confused opinions give birth to national consensus? What answer will we have in our defence – on the day that we meet our Creator – for having watched, impotently, as our nation bleeds?