Sahiwal: glitch in the software?

Imagine that we developed a kind of artificial intelligence algorithm that could determine with an accuracy of 100 percent who is a criminal and who is not. Let’s call it the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm.

We could simply run the Nadra database through the algorithm and, every morning, this brave new software would tell us how many Pakistanis became criminals in the preceding 24 hours – and for what kinds of crimes. There would be separate categories for petty theft, for robbery, for arson. Of course, there is a PTI government in charge now, so we would definitely have one for financial misdoings and corruption. Then of course there would be separate categories for domestic abuse, assault and rape. And, perhaps most importantly, for capital crimes that merit the death penalty, including association with terrorist groups, and actual, real acts of terror.

Obviously, if we had such a brilliant new invention, we would take advantage of it. Each morning, every Station House Officer (SHO) across the country would receive a smartphone alert on their custom-made Samsung Note 9 or Apple iPhone XS Max. Cha-ching-a-ling! Their shiny new phones would sing at 0830 hrs precisely. Three separate lists would pop-up. An amber list. A red list. And the dreaded jet-black list.

The amber list would be for folks getting themselves mixed with the wrong crowd, stealing hubcaps, vandalising public spaces, stealing money from people’s wallets – those types of crimes. To them the SHO would send an underling beat cop, maybe a head constable or an assistant sub-inspector (ASI) or the like. The ASI would go to these types to basically warn them, and say: “Hey Bro. Stop messing around. The new app, you know, the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm? Well, it figured out what you were doing last night. Not cool, brah. Don’t make the system upgrade you. You don’t want to be on the red list. If we had space in our prisons, I’d be booking you for what you did. But we are a large country with meagre resources (thank God we invented this software) – so I am here to warn you. Don’t do the crime. Because the next time I come for you, you’re going to do time”. This amber list would serve as an early warning system – and it alone would save billions in policing and prisons expenditure and free up resources for other business of the state.

The red list would be for serious criminals: repeat and serial offenders of petty crimes, hardened gangsters, thugs, thieves, professional robbers, vicious abusers and rapists. These people would be approached by the SHO himself, and would usually include a mobile squad with a few other cops accompanying him. Being on the red list would mean that you were heading straight to jail, with the recommended duration of incarceration on the red list besides each name and Nadra ID card number.

This part of the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm would be serious business. You definitely would not want to be on the red list. And you definitely would not want to end up on it by mistake, through a clerical error or because you did not update your ID card number when it expired. Of course, if there were some sort of a glitch, it would be sorted out at the prison where you would be held – eventually. Hopefully. But as long as you’d be alive, you would have a chance, even on the red list, of eventual freedom. Remember, however, that the promise of this algorithm was 100 percent accuracy. So the chances of a glitch would be close to zero – but it is Pakistan, and we are all human.

The jet black list of the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm would be death. Literally. Exclusively meant for terrorists and murderers, an appearance on the jet black list would be the end of your life. For this list, the SHO would call a specialised department built to essentially take out the trash, clean up the country, and rid us of the dirtiest, nastiest, most scummy criminals the country had manufactured.

For some reason this death squad would be called the CTD – which the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm would have translated as the ‘Culling Terrorist Department’. If ever we all wanted an algorithm to be truly bug free, it would be the jet-black list’s coding that would need to be 100 percent error free and guaranteed to work. Because once on this list, and once the SHO would call in the Culling Terrorist Department – you would soon die. The upside of course, would be that if ever there were to be a terrorist insurgency, this Patriotic Honest Pakistan app, or algorithm would eliminate it – faster and more efficiently than any country ever has. Anywhere. Ever.

Of course, by now, you (my dear reader) have figured out that Pakistan already has such an app, or algorithm. It isn’t called the Patriotic Honest Pakistan algorithm, because the app was not developed in a lab. It was developed on the blood-soaked battlefields of the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was debugged at the funerals of the children killed in the APS attack. It was launched under the brand name ‘National Action Plan’. Then it was checked, re-checked and checked again, in parliament as the 21st and the 23rd amendments to the constitution were drafted, debated and approved. It was tested repeatedly at apex committee meetings. And every time terrorists attacked Pakistan after December 16, 2014, it was renewed and rebooted.

This app is not on an SHO’s smartphone. It is much more widely disseminated. You can download the app on television between 1900 hrs and midnight, or on Twitter and Facebook 24 hours a day. Each night, the software gets updated. Which politicians are patriotic and honest. Which are corrupt and malafide. Which narratives will hurt the country – because they are backed by the same countries that cause terrorism in the Land of the Pure. And which narratives we need to adopt so we can be more honest and more patriotic.

The death of four individuals in Sahiwal at the hands of the Counter Terrorism Department of the Punjab government is an example, at best, of this app or algorithm working perfectly, and at worst, this algorithm or app, having a glitch.

Any app can misfire; if you input the wrong data, even the McDonald’s delivery app will send you the wrong Happy Meal. But in Sahiwal, the sad and tragic images of orphaned children that watched their parents being executed were basically making a great sacrifice for the greater good. They were giving up their sanity and peace of mind, for the rest of their lives, so that we – the honest and patriotic citizens of the country – could sleep comfortably knowing that someone out there is killing terrorists for us. And doing such a good job of it that sometimes even innocent people have to die.

Every time there is such a glitch in this brave new software of ours, there is a moment of honesty, hesitation and vulnerability. As long as the people that are prosecuting this war – shall we say the software developers – continue to be the ones that make all our other major decisions, we will recover from such moments swiftly and without warning. It is less than 72 hours since a group of alleged terrorists were taken out by the CTD Sahiwal. Unlike hundreds of previous such operations, there are blood-stained orphans, and videos, and public outrage. Clearly, there is a software glitch.

The glitch is our constitution. The glitch are lawyers – with their fees, and their adjournments, and their illegal offices in the kutchehris, and their eloquence. The glitch are human rights activists – with their constant whining, their sympathy for minorities, and for criminals and even for terrorists. The glitch are judges – the ones with some respect for due process and fundamental rights, the ones without Napoleonic complexes. The glitch is human error – the kind that can be acknowledged and accepted and sometimes fixed and sometimes not. The glitch is corruption – the type that helps free up bad guys and put away good people. The glitch is nepotism and tribalism and caste – all of which undermine the urban linearity that so many software developers crave so deeply.

The Sahiwal murders? Maybe they are not the glitch. Maybe they are part and parcel of the software. So the real question is not whether Sahiwal should have happened or not. Maybe the real question is whether it is time for new software.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.