• 07 Apr - 13 Apr, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

It was both moving and educative to see the last rites of a French police officer who was killed in a terrorist attack in France last week after the officer sacrificed himself as a hostage and offered to take up the place of a female hostage. The terrorist siege had taken place in a supermarket in the town of Trebes in southern France.

Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame left his phone behind as he went in to hand himself to the Moroccan gunman, so that his fellow police officers could hear what was going on inside the supermarket. It helped them in deciding when exactly to go in and resolve the situation. But in the gunfight that ensued, Lt Col Beltrame was shot four times and was also stabbed in the neck. He did not have much of a chance and died the following morning.

Lt Col Beltrame was given a state funeral. As the rain poured in the French capital, the gallant officer’s coffin wound its way across the streets of Paris from the Pantheon, a secular museum for French heroes. Throughout the sombre journey, people had lined both sides of the road and broke out in spontaneous applause as the coffin, draped in the French red, white and blue tricolour, passed them.

Tributes poured in from across the country as the eulogy for the dead hero was read by the President of France himself, Emmanuel Macron at the Invalides Military museum in Paris. Beside him stood two former presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. President Macron said: “To accept to die so the innocent can live: that is the essence of what it means to be a soldier.

“Others, even many who are brave, would have wavered or hesitated.”

He then walked up to the coffin and placed on it France’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur.

Schools and police stations around the country observed a minute’s silence.

Two cities in southern France, Pau and Beziers, have announced they will both name streets in honour of Lt Col Beltrame, and the mayor of Versailles said he plans to do the same.

Lt Col Beltrame was 44, and there is an element of special poignancy to his story. A few months ago, he was visiting a cathedral and had met a young lady there. The two fell in love and had decided to get married later in June this year. As Lt Col Beltrame lay dying, his fiancé expressed the desire to marry the dying hero. A priest was called and six hours before he passed away, he was married to his lady love. Shortly afterwards, as he was sinking away, the same priest read him his last rites.

As someone who reads about Pakistani security officials being martyred on an almost daily basis, what was striking for me was the elaborate manner in which the French honoured someone who had laid down his life for the country and its citizens. One cannot recall a single instance of any Pakistani soldier or policeman having being honoured in such a public way after making the supreme sacrifice, although the numbers of those who have done so runs into the thousands. In fact, I distinctly recall one particularly galling instance when, during the Lal Masjid episode, the martyrdom of an SSG commander, Lt Col Haroon Islam was covered on Pakistani television for no more than a minute while the funeral of Rashid Ghazi, one of the leaders of the Lal Masjid stand-off, was covered for hours, making one wonder who indeed was the shaheed. The quest for ratings makes monkeys of us all.

Since those dark days, the response of the Pakistani media and public has come some distance and now the Taliban and their ilk do not enjoy the sort of ‘status’ they once, most regrettably, did. But the Pakistani media, especially the electronic media, has much to answer for in its inability to play an unequivocal role in the earlier years of the fight against terror.

Over here in the west, there is no such dichotomy. There is agreement across the board, between governments, irrespective of whatever else they may agree or disagree on, the media and the public on this issue. That makes the fight so much easier when everyone is clear which side they are on.

The funeral of Lt Col Beltrame provided very powerful optics. In a country like Pakistan, where education levels are lower, such powerful television optics would go a much longer way than the interminable political discussions that adorn our screens, in which one knows only too well beforehand what the participants are going to say, depending on their respective political alliances, and none of which will have any credibility whatsoever.