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Endless Terrorism?

September 2008
Endless Terrorism?

By Parthiv Parekh

Ratan Mani Lal, a senior journalist and editor of a multi-edition newspaper in India, in a guest article in this issue of Khabar (“Tackling Terrorism,” Page 30.), describes terrorism as the “biggest scourge of this century.”

As Indian Americans, we have the unenviable distinction of being at the receiving end of this scourge from both sides of our dual national identities. In the U.S., thankfully, terrorism has not reared its ugly head with any degree of frequency or gravity after September 11. But that attack was catastrophic enough to have made terrorism a leading issue in the nation’s political dialogue.

In India, on the other hand, ground realities are bent on proving wrong the view of Thomas Friedman, the famous New York Times columnist, that India, a country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, has no homegrown terrorists. The recent Gujarat bombings which killed over 50 people were the latest in a spate of such attacks, many of which have been traced back to Indian nationals as the culprits.

Not surprisingly, both countries have had their share of reactive ranting and impulsive actions against this grave threat. In the U.S. these came from none other than the Commander-in-Chief, and soon found a place in the State’s counter-terrorism strategy. The fact that there has not been another attack on U.S. soil in about seven years is used by many as proof of its effectiveness. What this fails to take into account is that the intelligence community almost unanimously agrees that it’s not “if,” but “when” America will suffer an attack again.

Wouldn’t a successful strategy aim for a total diffusion of the terrorism phenomenon, as opposed to just keeping the terrorists at bay until they are able to break through our defenses? And breaking through defenses is just a matter of time. President Bush was at his wisest when he said, “We have to be right 100 percent of the time. And the enemy only has to be right once to hurt us.”

Preventing terrorist attacks, therefore, is a far inferior strategy compared to striving for a society where the very culture of terrorism is diffused. Before we discard this as a pipe dream, consider where hard power, antagonism, and the Iraq war have brought us. The war managed to convert a secular Iraq into an Islamic theocracy. It is now fertile soil for jihadi elements, thanks to which the number of those lined up as suicide bombers against the “evil” West has gone up, not down.

In India, while the State has shown restraint in the face of increasingly frequent attacks, the same cannot be said of many media pundits and Hindu nationalists who never fail to stir up sentiments in reaction. “You can only fight terror through terror,” proclaims Saisuresh Sivaswamy, an editor of the Indian editorial team of the India Abroad weekly. What terror would he have the State inflict? And upon whom? Is he thinking Gujarat post-Godhra? As we now know, such heavy-handedness is no assurance against more attacks.

“The terrorist is a school bully, see, and a bully only knows to respect superior strength,” goes on Sivaswamy. As misguided as a terrorist may be, he is far from a bully. Bullies only pick on those weaker than them. To a terrorist, the cause is bigger than himself. The willingness—and some would say—even eagerness to die for the cause is in the very DNA of the terrorist.

No wonder then, whether it is Modi’s Gujarat, Bush’s America or the perennial Israel, that such hard power approaches have far from diffused terrorism. Worse, in the absence of equitability and justice, such aggression can further strengthen the resolve of terrorists. And when such a vicious cycle is firmly in place, even arsenals of nuclear power are useless in providing comfort and security.

The hard power strategies against terrorism can be compared to focusing on curing symptoms. Yes, a nation does need “cures”: good intelligence agencies, strong law enforcement, a reliable judiciary, and above all, resolve. But in the absence of a focus on the root causes, hard power can only help in catching perpetrators (Sometimes before the damage has been done, and sometimes after!)—even as hundreds more take their place.

Whether it is the Patriot Act in America or the POTA (Prevention of Terrorist Activities) in India, having such measures in place gives us a crude sense of being “tough” on terrorism. They offer us a sense of control, and may even help catch terrorists at times; but they can never prevent the birthing of new ones! They are wholly ineffective in turning off the tap from which terrorists spring.

Sadly though, such a focus on the root causes seldom finds a place in the public discourse surrounding terrorism. But unless one addresses underlying grievances fairly, without caving in to the blackmail of terror, the endless cycle of violence can never be stopped. True, terrorism is morally reprehensible, and that quite often, the terrorists are simply deluded in their hatred, and are often looking for a convenient scapegoat for their own dysfunctional ideologies.

But for each such irrational gripe, there may well be one that merits attention. For example, as Americans, it should bother us as that so little has been made about the fact that both of America’s super villains in a post September 11 world—-Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein—-were our allies in a not-too-distant past. Both of them had received monetary, tactical and other support from us at a time when they were killing their own people.

There lies the cause of the legitimate grievances against America — a foreign policy given to expediencies and power plays rather than core values. Such a narrow focus solely on our interests, devoid of core values, has had us partnering with rogues at the cost of humane considerations. An insistence on core values in the realm of foreign policy may appear naïve to some; but the alternative gives a legitimate cause to terrorists.

A similar scenario can be seen in Gujarat. Pankaj Mishra, a prolific writer with a sociological bent, writes in the London-based The Guardian, “Muslim isolation and despair is compounded by what B. Raman, a hawkish security analyst, was moved to describe as the ‘inherent unfairness of the Indian criminal justice system’.” Mishra continues, “To take one example, the names of the politicians, businessmen, officials and policemen who colluded in the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002 are widely known. Some of them were caught on video, in a sting carried out last year by the weekly magazine Tehelka, proudly recalling how they murdered and raped Muslims. But, as Amnesty International pointed out in a recent report, justice continues to evade most victims and survivors of the violence. Tens of thousands still languish in refugee camps, too afraid to return to their homes.”

As proud Indians, we may detest such proclamations. We may rebel against them. But unless we are willing to at least consider them in earnest, there can be no hope for an end to terrorism. This is not to say that there are no villains on the “other” side, and that Hindus themselves don’t have their own set of valid grievances. Be that as it may, we need to decide: do we want to act as 21st century civilians and find solutions, no matter how tough, or do we want to revert back to Stone Age reactivity that will guarantee us endless terrorism.

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