Even a fortnight after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, people across India are seething with rage. That’s a perfectly legitimate emotional response, given the monstrous nature of the attacks, the mounting evidence of the complicity of Pakistan’s intelligence agency in planning and executing them, and the numbing realisation that Mumbai was rendered vulnerable by a colossal failure of our own state intelligence and political leadership. If we’re still obsessively replaying those traumatic scenes in the picture tubes of our minds, it’s because we’re only human, and the wounds are still a trifle too raw.
But this mood of bilious rage and momentary madness will surely pass. Barely weeks from now, I’ll wager, Mumbaikars will be back to their Obsessions of Normal Times: the Sensex, Sachin, Shah Rukh and Shiv Sena bickerings. That too is as it should be.
For, while rage is a useful emotion to summon up in times of extraordinary crises to dislodge ourselves from the comfort zones of our latte-laced lives, it doesn’t make for a reasoned frame of mind when the nation contemplates an appropriate response to the latest terrorist attacks.
In recent days, chatterati commentators on television talk-shows have spoken glowingly about George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks in the US, and have offered his doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and their patrons as worthy of emulation by Indian leaders. The crux of their argument is that by taking the war into the “enemy’s turf”, Bush has “protected America” and pre-empted another terrorist attack on US soil.
This is more than a little disingenuous and betrays an inadequate understanding of history. It’s true that there have been no more spectacular 9/11-style attacks on US soil. Yet, anyone who believes that America has not paid just as high a price (in terms of human lives and economy-draining military expenditure) for Bush’s adrenaline-driven response to 9/11 is arithmetically challenged and blind to the interplay of geopolitics and economics.
When Al-Qaeda ploughed airplanes into skyscrapers on 9/11, it wasn’t plotting an armed takeover of the US administration or the establishment of a Caliphate of America. Its intention was to poke the US in the eye with a brazen strike, stoke its military madness, draw it into an “asymmetric warfare” on unfamiliar, hostile terrain, and bleed it to death. That strategy has proved enormously successful: seven years after 9/11, the US is bogged down in two unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has lost nearly 5,000 military lives in these wars, about 2,000 more than the number of civilians killed in 9/11. And while its military spending haemorrhaged its economy, the wars themselves distracted policymakers and politicians from averting a financial meltdown, which in turn has proved ruinous for millions worldwide. The wars also helped jihadists around the world enlist millions more brainwashed minds to their ‘cause’, such as it is.
Do your maths and you’ll figure out that 9/11 was a ‘successful’ terrorist operation precisely because of the rage-inspired response it drew.
Virtually nowhere else has terrorism ever ‘won’, civilizationally speaking. In India, we’ve lost three Gandhis to assassins; other random acts of terrorist violence over the decades have claimed several national and state-level leaders, hundreds of thousands of civilians and service personnel and crores of rupees in assets. Yet, the only time when terrorists – be they jihadi, Hindutva, Maoist or Tiger – have ‘won’ momentarily is when they succeeded in stoking communal passions or pushed us to the brink of unwinnable wars.
All this is not to say that we should be apathetic when terrorists strike. We should build the defences against terror, hold our leaders accountable for their lapses, and bring the full force of “coercive diplomacy” to bear on Pakistan. But our responses should always be reasoned, not rage-driven. Only that will ensure that however grievous the immediate loss, we can quickly get back to worrying about how low the Sensex will go and whether
Michael Matthew Hayden was right to call India a ‘Third World country’.