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When Education Meets Catastrophe

18/12/2014 06:41 GMT | Updated 16/02/2015 10:59 GMT

In his Outline of History, H.G. Wells claimed, "human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." In making this delineation, he overlooked the tragedy that occurs when a school itself becomes the site of catastrophe. On Tuesday, Taliban commanders orchestrated a massacre within a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, which left 148 people, 132 of them children, dead. Some have compared Tuesday's attack to a school hostage crisis in Beslan, Russia, ten years ago, when 300 children were killed in a gun battle between Islamic terrorists and Russian forces. This brings me to the question: how can we better regulate spaces such as schools to make them safer? And, more importantly, how can we punish fundamentalist organizations that believe that the mutilation of a child's life is an acceptable occurrence?

Despite growing up in notoriously crime-ridden countries in Africa, I always felt safe at school. With time, it didn't make much difference that the school bus I rode to school in Johannesburg was bulletproof. I grew used to the barbed wire that surrounded the boundaries of my school in Tanzania. It was true that each child received mandatory safety training from our teachers, so the concept of being vigilant was drilled within us from a young age. The fear lay in being kidnapped for ransom; and yet, we spent our days within the school walls happy, creative, and free. So upon reading of the brutal massacres of school children in Pakistan yesterday, it was all the more jarring that one of the few safe places in the world - the place where children are encouraged to let go and learn without boundaries - can be shattered so quickly, so completely, and in an instant.

Young people face transitions in friendships, identity, and in their homes. School is a crucial time of flux when individuals are beginning to take a view on international events, and on their own socio-political identity. It is clear than learning can reach a wide social group at a formative stage, when young people are grappling with identity issues. The need for education is two-tiered: it can generate social understanding in facing epidemiological problems, and it can increase women's empowerment, for which literacy is a basic ingredient. I now wonder how children and their families can be encouraged to learn and go to school, when these possibilities are mixed with a fear for their lives.

In 2011, Hillary Clinton warned Pakistan that they couldn't keep snakes in their backyard and expect them to only to bite their neighbors. The state of Pakistan has allowed this situation to occur by neglecting to control a fundamentalist terrorist movement, in order to reap the benefits of its actions towards states considered enemies of Pakistan. The public statements released by the Taliban are contradictory. The premise for this attack, they justify, was to punish the Pakistani military, seen as enemies of Islam and "Western agents". Yet, how on earth does killing 132 children that were born Muslim constitute killing the enemies of Islam? Why is it that when Israel bombs schools in Gaza we, as the public, condemn them; yet, when the Taliban lines up tiny children to annihilate, we provide cognitive dissonance?

Today, the Pakistan premier lifted the death penalty moratorium in response to the school massacre. I believe the death penalty, in this case, is too little too late. Several academic studies over the last decade have attempted to estimate the efficiency of the death penalty: between 3 to 18 lives can be saved by the execution of each convicted killer. In particular, the economist Naci Mocan has shown time and again that each execution results in five fewer homicides, and commuting a death sentence means five more homicides. However, this is based on the assumption of an inverse relationship between cost and deterrence: as the cost of an action increases, it will deter the crime. Sadly, this is insufficient to stop people whose mental state is so flawed that their cost-benefit analysis is essentially broken. So Pakistan's death penalty decision is a symbolic, short-termist discourse at best. Instead,the Pakistani government should now be focusing on implementing health policy: in particular, combating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and helping victims of the violence. The appeal that the Taliban narrative has in Pakistan speaks volumes on voids in good governance on the part of the state, which is something that will only be reconciled in the longer term. The question now is on devising proportionate punishment.

Nikita Malik is a political analyst and a student from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and London (SOAS).