Alex Massie

Pakistan Edges Closer to the Abyss

Text settings

Sometimes it's the seemingly minor events - minor, that is, in the grand scheme of matters, not necessarily small or insignificant at the moment they occur - that can carry more weight than more obviously important or telling developments. Lord knows, there's been no end of troubling news from Pakistan in recent years. But, silly as it may seem, there's something especially terrible about today's attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team which killed at least six policemen and injured five members of the Sri Lankan team. (See Cricinfo's rolling updates for the latest news.)

Political assassinations, for instance, are hardly unknown in Pakistan (or elsewhere on the subcontinent) and so it's easy - perhaps too easy - to file them in a drawer marked Terrible Stuff That Sometimes Happens. By contrast, this attack has the Shock of the New about it. As Ducking Beamers says, the ghastliness of this latest act of terrorism is increased because its intended victims were not westerners. Whatever else may be said of the Bombay attacks, there was at least some degree of logic behind the attempt to target western tourists. Details may in due course emerge to contradict this, but at present it is hard to see any political motivation for this atrocity beyond edging Pakistan closer to fully-fledged failed state status. And that may be the point of it. In that sense, then, the immediate target may have been the Sri Lankans, but the real intended victim is Pakistan itself.

That is, it's a message desgined to demonstrate that this is Pakistan's new normality. Attacking the national pastime is a way of shutting off Pakistan from the rest of the world. Cricket was one of the few remaining arenas in which Pakistan could engage with other countries on anything like normal terms. That avenue to the world has been closed. No-one is going to be touring Pakistan for some time, perhaps years. 

It's not that sports teams could never be targets (some people felt they could) but that, like the terrorism that crippled the Munich Olympics, the impact of sports-related terrorism is magnified precisely because it is out of the ordinary and runs contrary to our idea of sport. And perhaps this is especially so when the afflicted sport is cricket. That's not because an attack on cricket is more serious or any more murderous than one on any other innocent target, but because sport is something in which millions of people invest so much energy, emotion and, yes love, that an attack on, in this instance, cricket seems to be an attack on something that we share and hold dear in ways that extend beyond a simple, shared humanity or sympathy for the victims of, for want of a better word, an "ordinary" terrorist atrocity.

There's no reason to suppose that cricket should remain exempt or aloof from Pakistan's troubles, but there was every reason to hope it would. This attack nudges Pakistan closer to the abyss and the death of Pakistani cricket (for that is what it amounts to) unravels one of the threads that was, until now, helping to hold Pakistan together. Perhaps that invests cricket with more importance than it can reasonably be expected to bear, but there it is nevertheless.

Finally, the message is also that no good deed shall go unpunished. Sri Lanka stepped in to tour Pakistan when India cancelled their planend tour after the attacks in Bombay. That the Sri Lankans, who have lived with the reality of terrorism for so long themselves and whose greatest cricketer, Muttiah Muralitharan, is a Tamil, should be the victims of this latest outrage is just another glum thought on a day likely to provide plenty more of those.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.