Bombay, Aug. 27, 2003: I write this 36 hours after another scythe of death has carved through my city. Bombs, dead people, panic, hatred, rumors. And if all that is tragic, the greater tragedy is that we’ve come to see all this as normal. A “normal” that troubles me greatly. A friend put it this way: “Fortunately or not, all this violence has killed a feeling of community. This is why we are so proud of this bouncing back to normal stuff, instead of mourning the dead and the state of our lives.”
I actually expect that by the time you read this, there will have been more futile deaths, more tragic blood spilled—and of course we will have “bounced back to normal” yet again. This is the state of our lives today.
It’s the terrorism we are all supposed to be fighting in this global “war on terror.” War on terror, but the enemy is, as a report in my paper tells me, “Hydra-headed.” Who knows where it will strike next? Who knows who is leaving these bombs lying here and there? Who knows if punishing one lot that is doing so will stop the terror, or only produce another Hydra head? Who knows who or what the enemy really is?
Two years after 9/11, six months after the invasion of Saddam’s Iraq, and with the Patriot Act and various security precautions in place, can we say with confidence that the average American feels secure? Sure that 9/11 will not repeat? Turn to India. Five years after we got the nuclear bomb that would “make us more secure,” with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) in place, can we confidently say the average Indian feels secure? Sure that random bombings in crowded urban centers are a thing of the past?
So, does passing a Patriot Act turn us into patriots and identify for us the criminals, traitors, and terrorists? Similarly, does passing a Prevention of Terrorism Act prevent terrorism?
Bombs in Bombay are the emphatic answer to such questions. So perhaps there’s a lesson here: a war on terror has to be fought some other way.
The U.S.: As I’ve said before in this space, I’m an unabashed admirer of much that country has to offer. Yet, the lesson of 9/11, it seems to me, is that there’s a very large number of people who hate America and Americans. Sure, I suppose it is possible to find some and eliminate them before they can harm the country. I suppose there are those in the U.S. who will support such steps, shouting down others who say it is un-American to punish someone on mere suspicion, and only because he hates you. And, of course, I suppose such a campaign will also punish some who have already, demonstrably, harmed the U.S.
But the real issue is: will this stop either the hatred or the maniacs who act terrifyingly on their hatred? Will this stop the terror?
Turn to India again. Just last year, we watched in horror as Gujarat went up in flames. From Godhra to Baroda to Ahmedabad, Indians slaughtered innocent Indians: locked them in a train and burned them, sliced them to bits, raped and incinerated them, onward into a hellhole of gore. Yet, think about how the state responded to the carnage. Those accused in the Godhra atrocity had POTA applied to them: right enough, for they were certainly terrorists. But those accused in other parts of Gujarat did not face POTA. What’s more: in the well-known Best Bakery case, the accused were acquitted and allowed to go free. Why?
Surely, the Best Bakery accused are no different, criminally, from the Godhra accused. Both sets of criminals burned innocent Indians alive. Why is one set seen as terrorists, the other left unpunished?
Will such naked partiality stop the terror?
Praveen Swami writes in The Hindu (Aug. 26) of various people arrested for earlier bombs in Bombay:
[One] was Dr. Jalees Ansari, a Maharashtra Government-employed doctor who was arrested for his role in setting off seven separate bomb explosions on trains to mark the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Ansari claimed he acted to avenge his experiences of communal hatred and bigotry.
Many of the dozen-odd young men now arrested for [more recent] bombings … seem to be driven by the same desire for revenge. [One,] Mohammad Nachan first encountered Bhiwandi riot victims when many of those displaced by violence there settled in his village, Padgha, near Thane.
Deeply moved by their suffering, Nachan maintained contact with several riot victims until he was recruited a decade later by the now-banned Students Islamic Movement of India.
How long are we going to carry on with this cycle of hate and death, riots and blasts, more riots and more blasts? What will it take to break out of it? Bashing the Hydra heads, certainly in India, isn’t working.
There seems only one answer that makes any sense, whether in the U.S. or India. And that stems from understanding the link between terror and injustice. The U.S. is hated so widely because of the perception that it supports injustice in the Middle East. Terrorists in India feed off the perception that injustice is widespread here: a perception reinforced by events like the Best Bakery acquittal. Both the murders and the acquittal fuel thoughts of revenge.
You may not agree with these perceptions, but they are undeniably there. To succeed, any war on terror will have to take them into account. To me, it is that simple.
So, in the U.S.: support must grow for a more even-handed Middle East policy. The U.S. will have to find ways to put pressure on Israel to move towards permanent and honorable peace with Palestine. This doesn’t mean we must disregard the workshops of terror in Palestine. This means the U.S. needs to be seen as even-handed. Across the Arab world today, it is not.
In India: we will have to recognize and punish terror wherever it happens. In Best Bakery, as in Godhra, as in Bombay. Again, this doesn’t mean we disregard the crimes of shadowy creeps who plant bombs and melt away, thinking they serve Islam. This means we must understand the part that horrendous crimes left unpunished play in this terror.
We must understand that those crimes are terrorism no less than bombs in taxis. Let such understanding become “normal,” and then let’s see how the war on terror pans out.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.