Geneva and Islamabad are two very different places. The former is known as a bastion of tranquility in Western Europe with a long history of democracy and neutrality, the latter as the capital of a large, militarily dominated country recently created with a history of violence as well as a continuing potential for destabilization from its neighbors Afghanistan and India.
And yet, returning to Geneva from a recent visit to Islamabad, I discovered that the roles had been reversed.
Geneva has been placed under high alert, the highest in its history. Warned by international sources, the police have arrested two suspects of Syrian origin with traces of explosives found in their car. Following recent attacks in Paris and California, officials in Geneva and neighboring France are following intercepted communication from extremists indicating a potential attack on Geneva. Four terrorists with ties to the Islamist State are being sought. The European headquarters of the United Nations as well as other international organizations are being closely monitored.
The City of Calvin, the Rome of Multilateralism, the site of numerous peace agreements, the birthplace of international third-party negotiation and of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is now the scene of a most unusual tension. While Geneva are used to enforced security for the visits of dignitaries such as the King of Saudi Arabia, Presidents Reagan, Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, this tension is new.
It is a reflection of the new face of violence, the killing of innocents at a concert or café. The horrific slaughter at the office of Charlie Hebdo had some direct political reason based on the drawings of the cartoonists. While the fusillades at the Bataclan and the cafés of Paris were linked to France’s role in the Middle East, the victims had done nothing directly; they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Islamabad was not under high alert when I arrived on December 7. It was under constant alert. Police and soldiers with Kalashnikovs patrolled the university campus where I spoke. A security guard accompanied me wherever I went. When making a brief cultural tour, the half-dozen invited guest were guarded by five armed police who followed our car and escorted us during museum visits. Highways into the city were blockaded with patrol checks. Any car entering the hotel compound was meticulously examined. Any yet the tension was not palpable. The city has become used to tension, used to the threat of violence.
What makes the tension in Geneva so unique is the fact that it is so unusual. There has never been such a high alert before. Pakistan was founded in violence. Over one million people died in its separation from India. The Taliban rule certain regions; the mountainous border with Afghanistan is difficult to control. The conference where I spoke was not convincing in its clarification of the relationship between the Islamic State and Pakistan. A history of violent extremism has never been excluded there.
Violence seems endemic in certain countries, if not in certain regions. Switzerland was surrounded by violence during two world wars, but its neutrality has protected it from prolonged violence. Pakistan has a much different history.
The people of Switzerland are not used to insecurity. Their country has been a haven. People came and come to Switzerland to flee insecurity. The people of Pakistan are used to violence, to insecurity. For them to be exposed to violence is not unusual. Armed guards are part of their daily lives.
What is the norm? Can we expect a future where insecurity will be the norm for all? As someone once told me; “The only truly secure people are buried in cemeteries.” What is surprising about the current alert in Geneva is that it has not happened before. Early in my stay here I remember marveling at Swiss soldiers leaving their rifles outside a café at the railroad station in Bern while they went inside for a beer. Are those days over? Is Islamabad the coming norm?