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After Taliban Attack On School, Pakistanis Are Distraught, Angry

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pakistan is trying to make sense of a slaughter-of-the-innocents this week. More than 140 people - mostly children - killed in a Taliban attack on a school. To get a feel for how the country is coping, we reached out on Skype to two well-known writers in the city of Lahore. Mohsin Hamid is the author of the novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Historian Ayesha Jalal wrote "The Struggle For Pakistan." Thank you both for joining us.

AYESHA JALAL: Thank you.

MOHSIN HAMID: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Let me start by asking you some small time has passed since this terrible event. How are people at this point taking in something that is really almost unimaginable?

JALAL: Well, people are shattered, but they're also very angry. So it's a mixture of real sort of shock and horror at the savagery. But also, I think there is an extraordinary anger and a resolve to sort of respond to them and stand up to them, I think.

HAMID: I was at a vigil, and there were people there who were weeping openly. And there were people holding a placard which said, you know, all terrorists should be publicly executed. And I think those two sentiments pretty much sum up how people are feeling.

MONTAGNE: One thing about the city of Lahore - quite a gracious city - it's on the other side of the country really from Peshawar. Do you feel any distance really?

JALAL: No, I mean - well, I mean, distance in the sense from Peshawar - but, you know, people in Lahore have not been spared this terror - this ongoing terror. So I think there is a sense of affinity with the people of Peshawar, the ones who - the families that have lost their ones. Obviously, this is happening all over Pakistan. It's not just one school in Peshawar, even though Peshawar has been the focal point of their attack.

HAMID: I completely agree. My 5-year-old daughter, at her school the other day, there was a prayer for the children who died. And so we had to explain to her something about what had happened. We found out that schools will be shut in Lahore because of the threat. So it feels very, very immediate.

MONTAGNE: There has been a great deal of violence, both related to the Taliban and other militant groups, but also political violence throughout Pakistan's history - assassinations of presidents and political figures. Would you put this in historical perspective for us? How does this latest terrible event fit in?

JALAL: Well, I think there have been political assassinations in Pakistan, and we've never found out why they were carried out or who did them. That's been one established sort of fact in Pakistan's history. We never find out who's behind things. I think this particular instance has shocked people because of the attack on innocent children. I mean, that, I think, people are just saying that's enough - enough is enough - no more.

MONTAGNE: Let me put it to you, Mohsin Hamid, do you think this is a turning point? Because I must say, there seems to have been other turning points that really, in the end, not so much changed.

HAMID: Well, there have been a series of turning points. The strategy of backing some militants and fighting others has completely failed, and it is failing horrifically. And the horror has become so pronounced that I think many people who previously thought that that policy made some degree of sense are starting to change their minds. And we are seeing statements from politicians who are accustomed to speaking, you know, both ways and from the military, which has, you know, played both sides. That suggests that maybe, you know, even there something is changing, and it's about time.

MONTAGNE: Well, Pakistan - or Pakistanis - seem to have - at least up until now - something of a complicated relationship to the Taliban there. How would you two describe that relationship?

JALAL: Well, I think you need to first of all understand the confused narrative on terrorism in Pakistan. First of all, there's Afghan Taliban who don't attack Pakistan, then the Pakistani Taliban who are attacking Pakistan since 2007. But I think the real problem is that there is still the view that no Muslim can do this. This cannot be done by Muslims. This has to be someone else doing this.

So this denial, this rejection of the fact that the enemy resides within or is a product of your policy remains a problem. You just have to switch the channels. I mean, the media has been really adding to the confusion - forget about the politicians and the establishment in Pakistan. I think the problem has been with the media that continues to suggest that this could not have been done by Muslims. Is it really the Taliban? Can we be really sure who's behind this? It's got to be a foreign hand.

HAMID: There has been a debate in Pakistan, and some people do like to imagine that there is such a thing as a good Taliban. In the political sphere, the debate's been going on. I think people are feeling much less comfortable saying that now. But I imagine it's also been going on within the army. And it's hard to explain or imagine just how much that debate must've shifted because after 120 children - many of whom are from families that have been slaughtered - any contingency within the army arguing that good Taliban exists surely is also feeling much more quiet now. So I think the tone of the debate has changed both politically and in the security services.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both so much for joining us.

JALAL: Thank you.

HAMID: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Mohsin Hamid's latest book is "Discontent And Its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York And London." Ayesha Jalal teaches history at Tufts University. Her book is "The Struggle For Pakistan. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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