2014 was not a peaceful year for Pakistan, with its end reflecting the violent times in which it, and other years, had passed. A fortnight before its end, the Peshawar massacre set in train a chain of events that made it inevitable that the turbulence of the past would continue in the future. The massacre had prompted, or rather forced, a display of national unity, but one of the solutions, military courts, had shown that there still existed cracks in the nation, and there was still an ambivalent attitude towards the military, which did not allow for agreement on how to proceed.

While the Peshawar massacre occurred at the tail of the year, its later half had been consumed by the sit-ins in Islamabad, which made PTI chief Imran Khan and PAT chief Tahirul Qadri candidates for the title of ‘Man of the Year’ if such a title was at all to be awarded. Qadri had made the best of a bad bargain by ending his sit-in, albeit without achieving the objective of forcing Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shehbaz Sharif to resign. It should be remembered that if the year was ended by the Peshawar massacre, the Modeltown massacre, when 18 PAT workers were gunned down, occurred in June, and gave Dr Qadri his main reason to march on Islamabad.

While Imran did not have such a reason to stage his march on Islamabad, a PTI worker was killed in Faisalabad, when Imran tried to shut down the city, while expanding his own sit-in, which he only called off after the massacre, to express solidarity in this moment of national crisis. The crisis led to a crackdown on militancy, though some of the measures did not seem necessarily to lead to greater safety for the ordinary citizen. The lifting of the moratorium on executions, and the increase in military strikes in the tribal areas seemed more acts of revenge rather than attempts to tackle the problem. This provides one context in which to place the military courts proposal, though the proposal itself reflects an old wish of Mian Nawaz Sharif, one that dates back to his first prime ministership. It also reflects, though at a greater distance, the drawdown of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, with the transition of remaining forces to a training role, rather than a combat one.

One advantage of military courts is that they will prove speedier than the anti-terrorism courts presently trying terrorist cases. However, that is not so much the result of having the judges military officers, as much as the courts having a lower case load. If civilian courts are seen as allowing cases to drag on, as much as because the judges go along with the postponements. In short, there are not enough judges. It is not enough to have judges: there will be a need for court-rooms, clerks, and all the appurtenances of a judge, including furniture. That will all cost money. Involving the military means using all of the money the military has invested in these things for civilian purposes. This might be valid, as the investment is of taxpayers’ money, but it supposes that military officers are fit to perform the function of the judiciary. This assumption about men who have been selected to officer the armed forces may not be necessarily correct.

In fact, this is one reason for challenging military courts. It must also be noted that the essence of military rule is martial law, to the extent that the latter phrase has come to mean the former. The most common justification of military rule is the need to preserve the country, even above its Constitution. The military courts proposal is thus a tacit admission of the failure of the civilian system and courts. It must also be noted that the military courts will do what the civilian courts cannot, which is to provide security to judges and witnesses.

These courts will be patterned on courts martial, which are set up only when needed, under the Army Act (or Air Force and Navy Ordinances), to try military personnel of certain special offences. The military has the option of trying its own personnel for civilian offences by court martial. It also is something that Mia Nawaz Sharif believes in firmly, with his first attempt to have military courts dating back to his first chief ministership, when he lobbied the Junejo government to pass a constitutional amendment allowing them. However, the judiciary has always resisted this, with Mian Nawaz’s second term seeing him clash with Chef Justice Sajjad Ali Shah on this issue. The judiciary has been suspicious of an attempt to set up a parallel judiciary. The Supreme Court has never looked favorably on having its jurisdiction ousted.

The proposal is based on the assumption that the rights of an accused to a fair trial now preclude a conviction. Courts martial are seen as not suffering from this defect. However, it is well known within the military that results are often predetermined. This is behind the COAS’s statement that such courts would only be sent cases of terrorism, thereby raising the question of who would do the sorting. He may have in mind the normal military procedure of a board of enquiry, which precedes a court martial, and at which the trial might really take place. Courts martial have a reputation as ‘hanging judges’ and the unspoken assumption is that there would be a lot more guilty verdicts from military courts.

This assumes that the purpose of a justice system is not to punish the guilty alone, but anyone. Such an approach may well be understandable after the Peshawar massacre, but it does not overcome its inherent disadvantage of dissipating any deterrent effect. The desire for revenge may well be behind the attacks on Lal Masjid and its imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz. That in particular seemed a convenient displacement activity for those elements enraged by the massacre, but unable to find any means of dealing with that rage.

The time the outrage has lasted indicates that it also carried something that people felt deeply, and was also about other things. In other words, it too was a displacement activity. Would it be too much to assume that people were concerned about punishing those responsible? It is perhaps symptomatic that the proposal has the military’s backing. Is the military itself desirous of activity that will allow it to come to terms with its previous use of the militants as part of President Ziaul Haq’s ‘strategic depth’? That would only be true if the military was as guilty of hobnobbing with the militants as the USA says it is. However, the unity shown by civilian political forces, which is the main bulwark against the conversion of the military courts into full-blown military rule, apparently extends to making the military more responsible for a situation in which it has claimed victimhood for itself. Meanwhile, the 135 dead children stay dead. No one knows what would have been their reaction to the politics swirling over their corpses.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.