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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 8, February 7, 2009

Terrorism: Some Questions

Wednesday 11 February 2009, by Bharati Jaganathan


After all the newsprint devoted to the terror attack in Mumbai, it seems that there could be little left to say about the event and its aftermath. And yet, there remain unasked questions and unformulated concerns.

My starting point is the centrality of the event in popular discourse even two months after its occurrence. Public anger and popular outpouring of anxiety and grief over the terrorist attack continues unabated. It is no doubt true that some of this centrality springs from its continued presence in our newspapers. The media largely creates and defines what is news, and for how long a ‘story’ remains newsworthy. But news in modern times has a curious impermanence. Tsunamis come and go; horrendous crimes, which are the staple of urban conversation one fortnight, are discarded in favour of newer, juicier items the next. Politicians can safely bet that public memory would have erased crimes committed over six months before elections. Much of this can, of course, be attributed to the ‘breaking news’ phenomenon. It is doubly interesting, therefore, that news media with no dearth of critically interesting material in the shape of the ongoing economic recession and its effects have chosen to keep the issue of terror on the front pages.

With elections round the corner and India’s favourite punching bag, Pakistan, implicated in- asmuch as the terrorists arrived from that country, a certain amount of high-pitched jingoism was almost inevitable. Both the ruling party and the principal Opposition have far too much at stake. And though the state of the economy matters to every citizen as much as, if not more than, the risk of being annihilated in a terrorist attack, it seems less amenable to promises of quick-fix solutions. On the other hand, one doesn’t have to be a specialist to theorise about terrorism, and better still, there are so very many ways to deal with the problem—from wielding the big stick at Pakistan to ensuring greater social and economic equality—that each one of us can pick our favourite.

It would, however, be incorrect to attribute the continuing public interest in the issue to just the impending general elections and the political heat it generates. There is, of course, a class factor in this interest. While the media—both print and electronic—caters to all classes of the people and should, theoretically at least, represent the concerns of the marginalised as much as the privileged, it is no secret that a very large section of the population is simply invisibilised. It has been pointed out in some retrospective news essays in December that the media focus was the elite hotels and that there was scarcely any coverage of the devastation in the CST station. Other sections of the press defended their skewed coverage on the ground that the live action at the Taj Hotel continued for three days while there was no fresh, newsworthy footage from the busy station which was back to business within a day. This, of course, papers over the photographs and news stories that appeared over the next week or two of the cafés and hotels targeted by the terrorists reopening for business and prominent interviews with celebrities who expressed their grief over the damage to the old Taj Hotel with “that is where I always stay when I go to Mumbai”, or “that is where my so-and-so got married”, etc. The subtext is unmistakeable: “It could have been me there that fateful night.” It couldn’t have been “me” at the CST. But that is beside the point.

Perhaps a fundamental reason for the extended public engagement with this particular issue is the way in which public and political discourse has been shaped since late 2001. Specifically, since the attack on the World Trade Towers, immortalised as 9/11. In a very superficial sense, we could see this reflected in the way the press referred to the Mumbai attacks as 26/11, in the style of the repeated telecast of the ‘horror’ footage, and the extensive comparisons drawn between the two events. But more serious is the way in which we—and perhaps the world at large—have borrowed the rhetoric of George Bush. The former US President’s simplistic and, if we may say so, bizarre world of ‘us’ and ‘them’ was based on an exclusivist and hysterical nationalism which in fact refused to comprehend the increasingly heterogeneous social composition of even the United States itself. Thus we learnt that the terrorists who targeted the Towers sprang from “an axis of evil” and must be “smoked out of their holes”. The very agenda of discussion about terrorism since 2001 has therefore revolved around revenge.

INDEED, the discourse quickly became so pervasive that we collectively forgot to ask if the issue could have been dealt with in any way but all-out confrontation. No doubt, there was—and continues to be— widespread criticism of the US bombing of Afghanistan, and its subsequent and continued, disastrous involvement in the geopolitics of West Asia which has generated immense anger and hate that again translates into terrorism. And yet, we need to ask a far more fundamental question: was it impossible to view the attacks on the twin Towers as other than an attack on America and the sacred “American way of life” itself? Was it impossible to think of that horrendous episode in the same league as other blood-chilling ones like the shootouts in schools by some crazy teenagers or brutal attacks on Blacks by the Ku Klux Klan some decades earlier? All these belong to the same cult of hate and violence; all of these—some sporadic and individual as in the case of the gun-wielding schoolboys and others organised and sustained—unleashed untold violence on vulnerable and, in many cases, unsuspecting people. And yet, one alone out of this long and bloody history was singled out as the great enemy of civilisation seven years ago, and the legacy remains with us.

This is not an argument to dismiss the threat of terrorism. It is important to recognise that international terrorism is now a reality, whether or not it was a decade ago. But it might be instructive to ask how much of the responsibility for its consolidation, if not creation, rests with the ‘fight against terror’. Might a different govern-mental response not have checked, if not entirely prevented, the cancerous growth of organised terrorism on this large scale? However, the tragic consequences of the ‘eye for an eye’ logic are here to stay and, worse, there appears to be no attempt to rethink the strategies to deal with terrorism other than widening the net of suspicion and of punitive systems.

My second concern springs from the responses I encountered in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attack. Several of my students expressed—along with distress—great anger with the perpetrators of the crimes. Some expressly said they wished to kill all terrorists. And all of us are of course aware that Amitabh Bachchan claimed in his blog that he slept with a (licensed) gun under his pillow for some days. If my students’ reactions were disturbing, it was nothing compared to the despair I felt at the kind of violent response validated and indeed endorsed for the millions by arguably the greatest icon of Bollywood. But even that seems pacific in comparison with Arun Shourie’s statement that the time had come to take “two eyes for an eye and a whole jaw for one tooth”!

Certainly, most of us were shaken (along with being morbidly spellbound) by the endless footage aired over three or four days. Certainly, a burning rage to punish the attackers seemed morally justified to most solid citizens who would never contemplate hijacking hotels with state-of-the-art armaments. Of course, it can be argued that these citizens’ reactions themselves were conditioned by the manner of television coverage. Another reaction that was equally pronounced was admiration for the National Security Guards; indeed, one major English daily reported in early December that the armed forces had become a distinctly more sought- after career option following the rescue work!

Two points emerge from this. The first is that we must reply to Arun Shourie’s utterly horrifying pronouncement with the age-old wisdom—“an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. If the last seven years of the ‘war against terror’ have not demonstrated that, we can look forward to a quick end to civilisation, and indeed humankind. We need to think of creative approaches to dealing with terrorism. Governments have to send out the signal that they are open to dialogue, even with terrorists. It is easy to trash this argument by saying that terrorists are not reasonable people and that sane dialogue is not possible with them. We believe that to condemn the terrorist without a chance (rather like anti- terrorism laws like the late POTA seek to do) to irrationality is to deny his fundamental humaneness. If we/the state deny a language, we cannot expect the speakers of that language to learn ours. When we decide that someone has nothing to say, or, worse, shall not be allowed to speak, we condemn them to catching our attention with bombs.

In other words, we are arguing that the ‘othering’ of the terrorist is fundamental to the creation of terrorism. We are not speaking only of the association of terrorism with Muslims, and the othering of an entire religious community thereby. After many years of nauseating discourse about “Islamic terror” and “clash of civilisations”, there is finally a recognition in at least the more responsible sections of the press that terrorism is not related to any religious community. In fact, the de-linking of terrorism from religion has led to the terrorist not being viewed as a specimen of species other than Homo sapiens. A terrorist is someone who respects no laws; he is trained to kill; he has been taught to hate certain groups of people/ civilised governments; he is brain-washed to follow certain orders—are these defini-tions applicable to anyone besides terrorists? Yes.

EVEN as the country was shocked and grieved by the loss of life and property inflicted by the ten terrorists in Mumbai, it applauded the National Security Guardsmen who risked their life and limb to save the hostages. These were men who could equally be described as being on a suicide mission. These were men who had been trained for a considerable period of time to obey orders, to kill. Let me assure my readers that I mean no disrespect to the brave soldiers. I am fully conscious of the extraordinary selflessness required to value another’s life beyond one’s own. What I am, however, trying to point out is that the training of a ‘terrorist’ is in no way different from that of a member of the armed forces. Men (and some women) have, through history, been ready to kill in the name of a cause—country, patriotism, an idea, and have been lauded for it. Every soldier who has ever gone into a battlefield has been willing in principle to obey orders without subjecting them to his own judgement, to decimate others because they are Jews/ Nazis/ Germans/ Frenchmen/ White Russians/ Bolsheviks/ Indians/ Pakistanis/ Iraqis/ Taliban… the list of those one can be taught to hate is endless.

A terrorist, then, is not so different from our children, siblings or friends who are in the armed forces, or from any of us. There is little essential difference between the citizen who believes that the ‘terrorist’, a faceless creature who is presumed to have an alien set of values, must be ruthlessly killed and the ‘terrorist’ who sets out to kill the citizen, an equally faceless creature with an alien set of values from his. Perhaps it is the habit of democracy—largely but not always a positive thing—which makes us assume that the hatred of the greater numbers (that is, towards terrorists) is morally justified whereas that of the few (that is, towards civil society) is not. Let me make absolutely clear that I am not arguing that terrorism is justified; rather, I assert that killing in the name of revenge, religion, nation, ideal, and even supposedly of terrorists is no different from killing by terrorists.

The discourse of the twentyfirst century so far has been shaped in such a fashion that it is impossible to not admit that terrorism is a scourge. But it is neither the only one, nor the most serious. More people die in India every year of tuberculosis from simple lack of medicine or continuity of treatment than of all the terrorist attacks put together. More people die in road accidents than in terror attacks; indeed, we face far greatest risk from reckless drivers than from terrorists. And all women everywhere are vulnerable because of their sex everyday of their lives.

A government that wishes to address the safety of its citizens cannot merely focus on combating terrorism. And we, ‘respectable’ citizens, need to ask ourselves: who among us can cast the first stone at the terrorist?

The author teaches History at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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