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Please empty your pockets

  • Published at 04:39 pm July 28th, 2018
On high alert
On high alert / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

How terror changed our lives

You don’t just hear it at various points in high security places like airports and government office buildings. You also hear it at the entrances to shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, even coffee shops.

“Please empty your pockets and put the contents on the tray and step right through here please,” the security official says curtly, as she waves the metal detector all over you, while you throw up your arms defensively as if to say: “I only came here for a cup of americano.”

Security is important, and to make a place secure, sometimes a person with authority needs to ask -- no, tell you -- to empty out your pockets. 

I know, I know, it’s all done for the greater good, but why does that line, that request, sound so much like what a street mugger might say? 

And how did we get to a point where we have to go through so many security checks in any given active day that we barely notice it anymore, placidly removing our keys, mobile phones, and wallets or purses, and walking through the security door in one swift, automatic motion, by now as much an act of reflex as removing our shoes before entering a mosque?

Because it didn’t used to be this way. Once, restaurateurs and coffee shop managers only worried about their bottom line and disgruntled customers. Not terrorists. Not the possibility that the worst kind of scum of the Earth would walk in and massacre innocent, unarmed civilians and delude themselves into thinking it was all part of some holy war.

But then, we all know how we got here. It happened slowly but surely, in front of our own eyes. And we have fought it the best we can, countering armed and angry young militant boys with our own armed and angry uniformed personnel (and metal detectors). 

We have taken out terror cells here and there, killed a few bad guys, locked up others, and patted ourselves on the back.

But when dealing with this virulent disease called extremism, have we gotten to the heart of the matter? Or have we, too often, been simply patching up the wounds, putting on band-aids, treating the symptom and not the disease itself?

And how much progress has really been made on this front? Is Bangladesh safer now? 

Shadows of Holey Artisan

On July 1, 2016, five young men with guns attacked Holey Artisan Bakery, an upscale eatery in the north of Dhaka, killing 20 hostages, two police officers, and two more restaurant staff. And while it shocked and stunned the whole country, with chilling and gruesome details flowing in and rumours running wild, in its own sad way, Holey was unsurprising. 

When the initial shock subsided, it felt like a natural culmination of the rise of extremist sentiments we had been seeing all around us -- the alarming rise of Hefazat, the spate of killings and assaults on writers, thinkers, bloggers, and “atheists,” constant compromises with the Islamist camp, and the shrinking of democratic, secular values and the space for dissent.

At times, the country seemed to have reached such depths of ignorance that to many, the word “blogger” meant blasphemer, atheist, or something diabolical. In this digital Bangladesh, big chunks of the population don’t even realize that a blogger is simply someone who makes posts on a web log, or blog for short.

How sad is it that even before Holey, words like blogger, atheist, and secular were seen as dirty words, and even the government was wary about firmly standing up for those who were attacked, lest the extremists become upset.

Militant bosses got the message that whatever they were doing was working. That they had a seat at the table. That political power was on the menu. And then Holey happened -- well, of course it did.

So now, as we sleepwalk through our hypersecuritized world, emptying our pockets automatically at every entrance, there’s no point asking how we started letting our lives be governed by fear and paranoia. 

All the signs were there from the start. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.