On March 3rd, unknown terrorist gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the old capital of the Punjab and second city of Pakistan. Six police guards were killed, but the cricketers escaped.
The story is nasty in a standard way, and very odd in others.
The easiest anomaly to explain is the survival of the cricketers. They were lucky – but also made their own luck. They came from a society with its own long history of terrorism by the Tamil Tiger separatists. Besides, they were professional athletes: very fit young men, with the quick reactions selected for by any ball game, and honed by its high-level practice. Cricket may look languid, as games last so long; but the ball is hard, like a baseball, may be bowled at 90 mph, and it’s legitimate to aim at the batsman’s head or body to intimidate him. The fielders are expected to take catches of mis-hit balls travelling at only slightly lower speeds, barehanded. At this level, you have to be pretty brave as well as quick. So when the team heard gunshots outside their bus, they did the right thing: they dived for the floor and shouted to the driver to keep going. And it worked.
Clip of highlights from a recent match between India and Sri Lanka:
A decorously bearded Afghan team played in Rawalpindi in May 2001. So its unlikely that the Taliban would have chosen cricketers as suitable symbolic targets. The Middle Easterners in Al-Qaeda presumably do not play the game, which never caught on in the British Empire in that part of the world; but why should they hate it?
Terrorism works by symbolic association. If observers are left scratching their heads because they can’t see the point, an attack has failed. This one makes the Pakistan government look weak and incompetent, which it is, and may therefore have some obscure payoff in Pakistani internal politics. It may also backfire. The mass of the Pakistani population live in the Indus plain and like cricket. Making them angry and liable to demand action against the anarchist backwoodsmen in the mountains doesn’t look to me like a brilliant idea.