Flashing red lights

I am sad to have to write about the death of a 10-month-old girl, Bisma, who died due to complications from measles when her father failed to reach the hospital in time because of the tight security cordon for Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. No doubt, the loss to the family cannot be compensated for with a mere apology. VIPs can help the common man in a big way if they instruct their security personnel to be lenient when the situation demands it. In fact, there is no need to block the roads when they travel as they are protected by dozens of cars accompanying them. This existing boorish VIP culture has been agitating the public mind for several years. People frown upon the misuse of state machinery in blocking roads to give priority passage to VIPs, flashing red lights atop their cars and blowing sirens to intimidate the public. Most people view traffic blockades due to VVIP security with a mixture of rage and resignation; rage because congestion wastes valuable time, resignation because, well, what can anyone do about it? People have places to go, after all, but waiting seems inevitable.

The VIP culture in Pakistan is omnipresent. Over the years, the number of VIPs has grown so large that new categories of VVIPs have been instituted to differentiate amongst them. Elected officials, senior bureaucrats, high-ranking police and military officers all wave flags and flash red lights in a race for privilege. Why did we develop this culture when our founding fathers shunned pompous security?

Terrorism gave an excuse to all VVIP’s to travel with heavy, intimidating escort vehicles. These are big cars escorted by their bodyguards in SUVs marked as police protection units, waving their walkie-talkie sets through open windows to intimidate other drivers. An ordinary driver has no means of challenging VIP entourage. The worst offenders are MNAs and MPAs who abuse this position fearlessly to the point of enjoying it. Almost every MNA and MPA is surrounded by an average of three policemen at the taxpayers’ expense. The ratio for ordinary citizens to police protection is an appalling one. Moreover, the tendency of the political class to attempt to grab even more of the public resources for themselves is often displayed with utmost belligerence. Too much noise is made about privileges at airports, railway stations, blocking of roads for security denying citizens access even in extreme cases of emergency.

It is as though there are two major models for human interrelated­ness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured differentiated and often hierarchical system of political, legal and economic positions, separating people in terms of ordinary or important. The second that emerges recognisably in the liminal period is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated community of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of ritual elders. Ironically, it could be this misfiring of empathy that compels us to make bad collective decisions that only make the situation worse.

Security is both a feeling and a reality. And they are not the same. The reality of security is mathematical based on the probability of different risks and the effectiveness of different countermeasures. We can calculate how secure our home is from burglary based on such factors as the crime rate in the neighbourhood we live in and our door locking habits or how likely one is to be the victim of identity theft. Given a large enough set of statistics on criminal acts, it is not even hard; insurance companies do it all the time.

However, security is also a feeling, based not on probabilities and mathematical calculations, but on our psychological reactions to both risks and countermeasures. One might feel terribly afraid of terrorism, or might feel like it is not something worth worrying about. One might feel safer when they see people taking their shoes off in front of airport metal detectors, others might not. The feeling and reality of security are certainly related to each other but they are just as certainly not the same as each other.

Psychology of decision making in terms of security risks is bounded by rationality, which examines how we make decisions. It is not directly related to security, but looks at the concept of risk. It goes a long way to explain the divergence between the feeling and the reality of security and, more importantly, where that divergence comes from.

How the common man’s life can be left undisturbed without compromising the safety of VVIPs is a million-dollar question. Sometimes it is not the VIPs who are responsible for such tragedies; it is the security personnel who create scenes and drama in the name of security. While they cannot ignore the threat to the VIPs they are tasked to protect, they should use their common sense and make decisions here and there for the sake of people. It is an insult, to put it in mildly, to the security personnel that notwithstanding the fundamental rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution they treat ordinary public in need of emergency help as potential, if not actual, risk.

It is ironic that those elected to serve the people deny the very people they serve access to themselves. Contrast this with developed democracies where equality before the law governs the demeanour of public servants. People understand that in view of serious threats, tight security norms are needed for VVIPs but the authorities must learn to minimise disturbance to the people. VVIPs are expected to protect the common man, not hinder his daily life.

The writer is a professor of Psychiatry and consultant Forensic Psychiatrist in the UK. He can be contacted at fawad_shifa@yahoo.com

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