Extrajudicial killings at the hands of law-enforcement agencies in Pakistan are the norm, with people accused by police of crimes dying under torture and the abduction of dissidents have been on the rise for a decade.

Recently a mentally unstable young man, Salahuddin Ayubi, a resident of Kamoke, Gujranwala district, Punjab province, died in police custody. Salahuddin had been detained after footage went viral on social media showing him breaking into an automated teller machine and getting his ATM card back after it had gotten stuck in the machine. He stuck his tongue out at the camera in the ATM.

A man identified as Salahuddin Ayubi sticks his tongue out at an ATM security camera. Photo: YouTube screen grab

After the video went viral on social media and the mainstream media picked up the news, the police arrested Salahuddin. It is alleged that they tortured him in an effort to get him to confess that he had been trying to steal money from the ATM, and that during the brutal interrogation, the young man died.

His death triggered a wave of sympathy for him and anger against the local police. As usual, the masses used social media to demand justice for the victim, while the mainstream media have found another story to fill the slots. Every TV and radio talk show is discussing how brutally Salahuddin was tortured and how inhuman the police have become. Analysts and self-proclaimed intellectuals are busy talking about police reforms.

However, no one wants to face the reality that policemen are recruited from within the society in which they live, and it is the collective mindset and radicalization of society that actually lead to incidents like these. There is also an element of hypocrisy among the masses and journalists who openly criticize local police departments for brutality and extrajudicial killings but remain silent on the illegal abductions and killings of by larger, more powerful law-enforcement agencies working under the security establishment of the country.

These journalists avoid talking about missing-person cases or the extrajudicial killings and abduction of dissidents because they prefer to enjoy the perks of their positions and do not want to risk losing their jobs, or worse. Meanwhile the masses, subjected to powerful state propaganda, confine themselves to criticizing individual police departments, as they know that this won’t put them at great risk.

Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who worked for Asia Times Online until his death in 2011. Photo: AFP / Cristiano Camera Adnkronos

The inability of Pakistanis to resist the illegal acts of powerful institutions, and the spineless media happy only to bring in ratings and revenue at the cost of sacrificing objective and fearless journalism, have made this society a hypocritical one where even the extrajudicial killings and abductions of dissidents are condemned only on the basis of which particular police department was actually involved.

Naqeebullah Mehsud was brutally killed by a hitman allegedly under the auspices of Karachi’s powerful superintendent of police, Rao Anwar, but despite all the evidence against Anwar, he was given a clean chit by the courts as the powerful agencies were behind him. Asia Times Online’s Pakistan bureau chief, Syed Saleem Shahzad, was abducted and slain in 2011 but to date, no one dares to ask the authorities to bring his murderers to justice.

It seems that not only does the system treat the powerful and the weak entirely differently but the intensity of societal outrage against the illegal acts of law-enforcement agencies also differs on the basis of which institutions are powerful and which are weak. A society that has a double standard in even condemning the crimes and tyranny of the state institutions can never expect such crimes against its fellow citizens to cease.

Then there is the factor of radicalization of society. When even children are being taught in school and at home that violence is not a crime and that there is great glory in conquering opponents through the might of the gun, society can never produce the balanced and healthy minds that show zero tolerance toward any kind of oppression or inhuman act. The lynching of Mashal Khan and the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer are still considered heroic acts by a large number of the people. Killing an Ahmadi or burning their homes is considered a holy act by many in society. So when kids are raised with these kinds of ideologies it must be expected that they accept violence as a normal part of life – and some of these kids eventually serve in their local police departments and other law-enforcement agencies when they grow up.

Then there is a huge segment of society that can be termed vultures, as instead of demanding justice for innocent people like Salahuddin Ayubi or Naqeebullah Mehsud they start asking why Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif or Maryam Nawaz is not being killed in police custody. This depicts the mental state of society, that while condemning such brutal acts as extrajudicial killings, people want their opponents to be killed in the same way, and thus they spread even more violence in the form of hatred against those they do not like.

As long as society remains full of these vultures the violence will breed, and as a result, more innocent people like Salahuddin will be killed and become the subject of social-media videos and “likes” and television rating points.

The police, of course, need reforms, and the first step is to hire psychologists for every police station who not only help in criminal investigations but also provide counseling to the policemen and identify the violent and fanatic members of the police force. However, the question remains: Who will change the collective psychology of a society that breeds violence and waits for these kinds of incidents to trigger emotional social-media updates or emotional talk shows for ratings? Who will solve the missing-person cases, and who will bring to the justice those who are more powerful than the local police departments and considered untouchable?

The collective thought process of society regarding “good murder” and “bad murder” needs to be changed, and inclination toward violence of any form needs to be stopped. Mere emotional slogans or criticizing politicians will not stop the extrajudicial killings and abduction of citizens. Zero tolerance toward any kind of oppression and violence and the courage to hold each and every institution responsible for their wrongdoings, even those with the status of sacred cows, can bring these kinds of inhuman acts to an end. Otherwise more people like Sallahuddin Ayubi, Naqeebullah Mehsud and Saleem Shahzad will keep dying extrajudicially, and society like a vulture will continue to shed crocodile tears on social media and in talk shows.