Thursday, December 04, 2008

Mumbai -- forget the "war on terror" and zero in on the terrorists

The assault upon civilians in the city of Mumbai (Bombay) last week has left India and the international community shaken. These men, whatever their motivation, had a plan and were well armed. However, their greatest weapon was fear. Ten armed men brought a city of 19 million to a standstill for three days. India must act to prevent this from happening again but they must restrain the temptation to oversimplify the threat they face and to overreact by lashing out indiscriminately.

Rosa Brooks has these thoughts:
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.

Mumbai should remind us -- again -- of the folly of the Bush administration's "war on terror." Terror is an emotion, and terrorism is a tactic. You can't make "war" against it. Even if meant as mere metaphor, "the war on terror" foolishly enhanced the terrorist's status as prime boogeyman, arguably increasing the psychological effectiveness of terrorist tactics. Worse, it effectively lumped together many different organizations motivated by many different grievances -- a surefire route to strategic error.
This is not to say to do nothing. On the contrary, something must be done but intelligent and effective responses will differ from situation to situation. The catchall phrase “war on terror” is not only meaningless but can be dangerously misleading by its oversimplification. India should learn from the mistakes of the United States in its fight against Al Qada. Do not hand a terrorist group a psychological victory by elevating their status as a threat but be relentless in pursing the guilty. And do not use this attack as an excuse to pursue other military adventures only tangentially related to this crime. The government will lose credibility in the long run and the guilty will escape to plot another attack for another day.

You can read Brooks’ entire piece here in the L.A. Times.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Stephen, this is my first visit to your blog and I am impressed. I am an Indian and have been posting about terrorism in my blog since long. Though not many in number, one post gives you a historic background which I wrote after one of my regular readers asked for it. You can see it at

Apart from this, I quite like your blog and shall return to it often. I am bookmarking it to make it possible.