Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Mumbai Parallel

I have been numbed by the events in India last week.

As often happens when events overwhelm me, I feel stunned and in shock. I have been a deer in the headlights as far as writing about it. Which way to turn? Which searing angle to burn? The absolute need to address it is there, of course. And to evade such a moral imperative is to squelch all other efforts at writing. One wants to strike back at such an outrage so as to avenge it. I have been weighed down by a feeling a hopelessness: the current blame-game environment is just too target-rich. In the meantime, a whole week has slipped past.

But Rosa Brooks gets me off my dime. Look at what she wrote in the Los Angeles Times, a couple of days ago:
. . . . The Mumbai metropolitan area is home to an estimated 19 million people, but it took just 10 men to shut the city down.

Last week's terrorist attacks involved a handful of men armed only with guns, grenades and homemade bombs. But they killed more than 170 people, closed universities and businesses, shut down India's National Stock Exchange and did incalculable economic damage to a country that boasts the world's third-largest military and internationally respected police and intelligence services -- none of which managed to prevent the attacks.

Sound familiar?

It should. It should remind you of 9/11, when 19 men armed only with box cutters ultimately killed nearly 3,000 people. And the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which killed 191, and the 2005 bombings on London's Underground, which killed 52. Each of these attacks involved a small number of perpetrators. Each was low-tech. Each caused enormous psychological and economic damage in addition to loss of life, and each occurred in countries with sophisticated security forces.

Get used to it.

Because the Mumbai attack should also remind you of Timothy McVeigh and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168, and the 2002 D.C.-area sniper attacks, in which two men killed 10 people and caused so much fear that for weeks people were reluctant to go to shopping centers or gas stations, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which one man killed 32 people.

The perpetrators of those attacks weren't Islamic extremists. McVeigh was a white supremacist; the D.C. snipers were a disgruntled African American Army vet and his gullible teen sidekick; the Virginia Tech killer was a psychologically troubled Asian American student. They had nothing in common except anger and a desire to cause death, pain and panic. And they succeeded.

We can't even stop school shootings by disturbed teenagers. Don't imagine we'll be much better at stopping ideologically motivated terrorists. As long as terrorists keep it low-tech and simple, they're hard to stop.

. . . . . I also wonder: Why would a terrorist bother to manufacture a nuke or "weaponize" a virus -- a complicated, costly, risky and time-consuming process -- when all he needs is a few determined people, some cheaply and easily obtained weapons or explosives, and boom? Even the most sophisticated society would be left paralyzed with fear. . . . .
I don't quarrel with where Brooks takes her readers with this - emphatically not.

What I am taken with is all this hysteria about weapons of mass destruction. Of course, a primary focus of American defense organizations (such as the NSA, CIA, State Department and Defense Department) should be to reduce the probability of dirty bombs being delivered to our cities in suitcases. But with that no-brainer voiced, let us not forget the weapons of individual destruction.

An unbelievably small contingent of highly trained men, unloading bulging knapsacks of weapons of individual destruction from dinghies, dragged their putative baggage into hotels and what-not. Altogether, they killed 170 (17 a-piece), demolished iconic buildings, held hostages and kept millions throughout the world glued to their teevees for half a week. Terrorism, perfect and incarnate.

Like the 9/11 attack on the World Trade center:
  • Everyone initially said no one anticipated it.

  • The attack was elaborately planned to strike at multiple sites.

  • They produced a television spectacle..

  • The delivery system was commonplace; no anti-missile missile system would have prevented it.

  • Weapons of individual destruction were used: knives, guns, hand-grenades.

  • Assailants came from abroad from a failed state which refused to give up the usual suspects and probable culprits.

To be sure, the Indians have some remedial work to do like training up some 21st Century SWAT teams to beef up their civilian defense. (Lee-Enfields?) Let's hope they don't have a George Bush type who goes off with an aerial bombardment of Saudi Arabia.

Instead, some intensive multilateral diplomacy is in order. That should be led by heavy-handed, hands-on leadership by our own new, 21st Century-competent national security team. In other words, I'm saying that we cannot afford to address Kashmir and related issues with the same hands-off, bystander approach which has characterized Bush's non-policy on Palestine for the last eight years.

But that said, let's remember those assault weapons of individual destruction. These are the same types of weapons the NRA says are guaranteed by the 2nd amendment. These will not have to come to our shores in the dead of night, dragged over piers, etc. They are readily available at neighborhood swapmeets, yours and mine.

4 Moderated Comments:

Blogger adynaton said...

When politicians tell you they are the only ones able to make you safe, they aren't talking about box cutters, are they? It's not that kind of problem. A good schoolteacher in the right place can do more to help quell extremism than all of Homeland Security.

12/07/2008 03:33:00 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Richard Rodriguez, What terrorists want

…Seven years ago, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen got into a heap of trouble by calling the 9/11 terrorist attacks "great art …. What [the late] Stockhausen (who died last year) was referring to was the performance-like aspect of the televised World Trade Center crashes. He was amazed that Al Qaeda could reorient the American public's worldview in "one act" -- something, he lamented, that a person in his profession could never achieve.

The attacks in Mumbai had a similar performance-art quality. The terrorists, who did nothing to obscure their identities, were monitoring international media reaction to their three-day killing spree on their BlackBerrys. In other words, as they slaughtered people, they were watching us watch them ….. The terrorists kill to grab your attention, and they dare you to look away.

Rodriguez quotes British terrorism expert Paul Cornish who wrote last week:

This is precisely how terrorism is meant to work… The terrorist's action must always be complemented by the target's reaction in order to complete the scene.

Rodriguez continues:

The terrorists lure their target societies into the need to remember -- the iconization of the event. They're under no illusions that they will remake the world with their actions or win a conventional battle; their goal instead is to invade our collective psyches. And the rush to memorialize, remember and enshrine these events -- and their victims -- plays into the hands of the terrorists as much or more than 24/7 news coverage.

Of course, it's true that memorializing trauma is one way of processing and making sense of tragedy and violence …. But the manipulation of those memories can also end up being less an act of honoring the dead than of glorifying and justifying the actions of the killers.

….. It's a vicious circle. Survivors often allow themselves to be defined by the evil wrought upon them by others. The survivors "complete the scene" that the terrorists started by never forgetting. Literary critic Leon Wieseltier once wisely called into question the transformation of oppressive "experiences into traditions."

Although he was speaking of events that happened over years, like slavery or the Holocaust, I think his analysis extends to incidents of terrorism. "In the memory of oppression," he wrote, "oppression outlives itself. The scar does the work of the wound. ... It is a posthumous victory for the oppressors, when pain becomes a tradition."

I don't blame the media or their consumers for fixating on the violence in Mumbai. …. But from time to time, when the killers take over our image-driven world, when their actions are first memorialized in one iconic digital feed or another, and as that memorializing explodes into the future, we should also summon the strength to look away.

12/08/2008 07:55:00 PM  
Blogger MarcLord said...

The Mumbai attack reeks of direct intelligence involvement. I've been mulling it over as well, and the closest I've come to getting my head around it is it favors al-Qaeda by shifting Pakistan's focus away from its western border to its east. It favors India's right-wing party; it favors US diplomacy in the region, and its advanced arms industry. It may favor an independent Kashmir, but that's quite debatable.

No way was the LeT capable of pulling this off alone.

12/10/2008 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger MadMike said...

I was relieved after reading your post Vigil. I was afraid that something had happened to the elephant:-)

12/11/2008 01:40:00 PM  

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