The politicians were quick to react to Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Karachi that killed 43 people on a bus operated by an Ismaili Shia community. The language they used is unambiguous: the shootings were “cowardly”, “heinous”, and “condemnable”, they said. Others said that the attacks are “regrettable” and “tragic”. They promised “swift justice” and a “strong response”. But given the frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, those expressions of grief and outrage and those promises of justice and retribution began to sound empty a while ago.

Ordinary citizens, no doubt earnest in their calls for solidarity and collective mourning, also acted according to a script. Many Pakistani “hearts bleed” in the wake of the attack, like they have done so often before. The “shock”, the “inhumanity”, the “villainy” were on display for all to see. We are all Ismaili, we are all Pakistani, we are all one, we are all Sabeen Mahmud, all of Pakistan’s blood has been spilt.

Certainly the Sunnis know what it feels like, they say, to be blown to bits in their own home like Shias experienced after the Abbas Town bombing in 2013. Sunnis can feel what it’s like to have their houses of worship destroyed like the Christians in Peshawar and Lahore. We are all one – except the Ahmadis, who constitutionally are not. In these times of crisis, we are not Sunni or Shia, or Baloch or Punjabi, they say, we are Pakistani – even if it is the Baloch who are singled out to be kidnapped, censored, tortured and killed.

Playing to script

There was also a visual sequence of events that followed mechanical precision. The crying family members, the splashes of blood, the bullet holes, police cordons, all were there, widely shared. Hashtags (#SolidarityWithIsmailis), candle vigils, memes (The Neimöller poem from the Nazi era, beginning “First they came for…” is particularly popular), convincing performances by television anchors and those they interviewed, portraying the same outrage and anger expressed via tweets.

A little bit after, there’s the hunt for who’s responsible. The day after the attack, Pakistan's Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary accused Indian intelligence agency RAW for conducting terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil. The army did the same last week. If they are to be believed, there’s never really ever been a Pakistani terrorist, and one wonders if that is a comforting thought. Was it Jundullah, an organisation that has conducted various deadly attacks including the Wagah border bombing in November but is still call a “splinter” group? Or was it the Islamic State, whose pamphlet was purportedly left at the scene of the shooting in Karachi on Wednesday? Even if they do call in to say it was them, the matter of whodunit isn’t really any closer to being solved. “Of course they said it was them. Would India actually ever admit to doing it?” Alternatively, “It must be the Muttahida Qaumi Movement or MQM. They want to deflect attention from their party worker’s execution.”

Pervasive sense of despair

Not that it really matters. Look closely, and you’ll see a deflated sense of despair, even from politicians who aren’t really hired to look passive – or use the passive voice.  Pakistan People’s Party representative Sharmila Faruqi looked to the divine for respite. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf  legislator Arif Alvi believes the anger and tears “have to” bring criminals to justice, without really explaining how one leads to the other. Another PTI stalwart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said urgently that perpetrators “must be brought to justice”, was unclear about who would be doing so. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah declared the day after a “day of mourning”. Mourning it seems – not investigation, prevention, or action –  is what our leaders know how to do best.

The army spokesperson Lt Gen Asim Bajwa did, however, have a plan. He tweeted a nine-point plan to deal effectively with terrorism in Karachi, complete with sweeping recruitment reforms, checkpoint installations, financial regulations, and oversight mechanisms. One must wonder whether the range of policies, iterated in numerous proposals, bills, conferences, discussions, memos and meetings, hasn’t yet been implemented; after all, there hasn’t been a shortage of attacks . All the same, one wishes him luck.

A wider population that is “saddened and shocked”, candles, a day of mourning, eloquent poems, thoughts and prayers, rounds of accusations (always without evidence) and promises of justice. Every time there’s a terrorist attack, Pakistan reacts like clockwork.