City City Bang Bang, Columns

The grim truth about terrorism

The job of a terrorist is not to kill people randomly but to make them feel helpless and angry. The ghastliness involved in the killings is a device used to create an atmosphere of panic. The last few days bear testimony to the success of this strategy. We have heard voices of outrage from the citizens of a city sick to death of being targeted over and over and the angry lashing out at the powers-that-be for their continued inaction in doing anything to stop these acts.

The most immediate reaction has to do with the perceived weakness of the Indian state. Here the seemingly interminable trial of Kasab and the question of the execution of Afzal Guru, become particularly galling instances of the inability of the state to send a strong message to terrorists. There is undeniable truth in this, for the state seems to waffle when confronted with questions of this kind, and uses calculations that seem geared towards politics rather than justice. But the truth is that Kasab had come here on a suicide mission; that he lives is an accident and if he dies eventually at the hands of the Indian judicial system, it is unlikely to deter any other suicide attacker. The notion that punishment by death is a deterrent is rooted in a world before suicide bombers. The idea of revenge might be emotionally satisfying but to believe that it will reduce acts of terrorism of this kind is a little naïve. What is perhaps more important is to bring to swift justice, the ecosystem that surrounds terrorism. Actions of this kind require planning and co-ordination, a significant part of which needs to be local. Not everyone connected with acts of terrorism are on suicide missions, and these are the components of the terrorist machinery that are more susceptible to control.

The other strand that emerges in the post-bombing scenario is the sense of outrage felt by Mumbaikars on behalf of their city. The repeated assaults on this city have created a sense of searing anger and a deep unshakable sense of frustration at being sitting ducks that can be targeted at will. This is a wholly understandable reaction, but this does need some nuancing. The reason why Mumbai comes under repeated attack is perhaps precisely because it offers more incremental mileage to terrorists. Apart from its commercial significance, it is a city scarred emotionally by violence and its reactions are therefore pitched at a higher register than elsewhere. It is also a city that is trapped between economic and cultural importance and political insignificance, which makes the gap between demand and supply of good governance unacceptably high. Mumbai is critical to everyone else except politicians, and as a result its citizens pay the price. However, to believe that as a result, the rest of the country is in some silent conspiracy against the city is take the emotional reaction too far. Delhi, for instance, was the epicentre of terrorist attacks during the Punjab problem, and resembled a city under siege during that period.

The deeper issue is that our usual responses to crises just do not work when it comes to terrorism for it is fundamentally a different kind of problem. Most problems in India, it would appear, can be fixed by a greater application of political will. We have seen this beginning to work in Bihar, where among things, the incidence of kidnappings has magically dwindled under a new regime. But however venal and ineffective politicians in Mumbai are and whatever be the state of indifference shown to Mumbai by the powers-that-be in New Delhi, terrorism cannot be fixed by the simple change in the mindset of politicians.

There are no easy solutions. Greater security is not an answer, for the terrorist can come from anywhere in the country or outside, can look like anyone else, and can, particularly in the case of random bombings, achieve his goals without doing anything that seems suspicious. All our security measures have a chance of working if amateurs were trying their hand at terrorism; anyone with even the slightest training is virtually unstoppable once the operation is set in motion. Put yourself in the terrorists’ shoes and you will how easy it is to drive up in a car loaded with hidden explosives, go through the checking, park the vehicle in a crowded place, walk away and detonate the bomb from a safe distance.

The crux of the problem is that terrorism cannot be tackled by changing a few elements of the system, but by changing the system altogether. The terrorist act is a big event, but it gets enabled by a series of small actions that span the country. For any successful anti-terrorism operation, every element of the system needs to be working. In a country where corruption is rife at all levels, and where not even the smallest of policing can be taken for granted, the Indian ability to do something about terrorism is virtually non-existent. Information needs to be compiled and made accessible in realtime, co-ordination needs to happen across state borders and departments, a system of informants and on-ground intelligence needs to put in place and the judicial system needs to deliver swiftly and fairly. As things stand, none of these are pre-requisites are in place. To get an FIR registered in India is an act of high achievement; any talk of more sophisticated policing is fanciful. Whatever our pretensions about growth and progress, nothing exposes India as a third world country as cruelly as does terrorism. Caught between first world indignation and third world reality, India is in the worst possible position to handle the effects of terrorism.

Terrorism is a virus of doubt that eats away at civilizations. This doubt can be dealt with to a degree, only when there is certainty and transparency in the way the key mechanisms of a society work. Even in the best case, the cost of stopping acts of terrorism results in infecting a much larger set of people with suspicion and doubt, as we have seen in the countries that seem to have controlled such acts of aggression. There is no good news on terrorism, and in India, things have no reason to get better. Solutions will need to go beyond anger, outrage and the understandable but meaningless rattling of imagined sabres. Given the condition we are in as a country, there is little we have to threaten terrorists with, and the sooner we understand this, the greater the chances of a more realistic engagement with the problem.