How to Beat Terrorism

A recent conversation thread in one of my WhatsApp groups made me think about this topic once more. What is the right response to terrorism? Of course, this topic is much larger than the thought processes of a lonesome blogger, but I do have my views – as usual.

It seems to me that terrorism or a terrorist attack has multiple, nuanced goals. It has an immediate goal of terrorizing the target group, community or society. The moment the attack is successful, this goal is accomplished, which is countered or minimized by rhetorics. This is why we hear political leaders talking about “cowardly” attacks which will not cow the brave citizens of whatever country. But the brave citizens do get cowed. I remember traveling around in Paris trains in 1996-97, right after a series of bomb attacks. Every time I heard a creak or a crack, I tensed up, even though I knew fully well that the probability of a bomb was smaller than getting hit by a car on the way to the train station.

Another way to mitigate the impact of the terrorist’s immediate goal would be legal response – catch them and bring them to justice. Increased security, though necessary, serves only to amplify the impact.

At a deeper level, terrorism has political goals. It aims to increase the polarization between the targeted and the host communities, to fester more hatred and animosity between them, which will eventually create more terrorists. Against this objective, almost all responses (such as carpet bans on travel “until we know what the hell is going on”) are wrong. Even more insidiously, it sows mistrust between communities of the same national, ethnic and racial origins, leading to religious violence, which would be ludicrously funny but for the death and misery it causes.

Let’s look at a specific incident to illustrate the point. Long time ago, during the Punjab separatist movement, there was this incident where they (the terrorists) stopped a train, separated the Hindu passengers and shot them. What were they trying to achieve? My theory is that they were looking for a bloody, violent response on their own community, which will engender a new generation of separatists. What is the right response though? I don’t have any concrete ideas, I just know that violent responses are wrong. When every move we may make is a wrong one, standing still may be the wisest course of action.

Standing still and taking another look, however, is precisely the one thing the hot-blooded youth of the community cannot do. But if they did take another look, they would see how ridiculous and comical the communal violence is: These two communities look the same, speak the same language, eat the same food, enjoy the same music. But for the accidental fact that they pray to different gods, they are the same. And why do they pray to different gods? Because of the totally accidental fact that their parents do. What is manifested in the bloody violence is, ultimately, our naïve and filial belief in the infallibility of our parents’ faith.

We can see such naïve beliefs everywhere, masquerading as patriotism or even common sense. We Hindus go around honestly believing that we are a non-violent, peace-loving community despite the obvious contradiction of gang rapes and cattle-related lynchings and the love for myths and movies that glorify violence. Indians are convinced of our moral rectitude when it comes to our territorial disputes with our neighbors, just as convinced as the neighbors are of theirs.

I know that the statements in the last paragraph will convince some of my friends that I am anti-Hindu or anti-India or whatever. They will probably brand me as unpatriotic to my ancestral connections. To them, let me say this: It’s not that I love my ancestral roots/tribe/community/religion any less than you do; just that I love the rest more equally than you. I believe that love for our fellow beings should supersede our blind affiliation to narrow, artificial, tribal divisions. Philanthropy, in its literal sense, trumps patriotism any day. At least, for me, it does.

So how do we beat terrorism? If we kill all the potential terrorists, we have won the battle against terrorism. But that is a hallow victory. Not convinced? Well, think of it this way. We can also win by killing all the potential victims because when all the targets are gone, terrorism stops. Winning is not all that matters. How we win also is important.

Terrorist attacks have at least one more aspect, the ideological one, which is big enough to merit a separate post.

The Physics of Romance

Let me give you a physics lesson. During your high school days, you may have learned that an atom has a nucleus and a bunch of electrons. The nucleus has protons and neutrons, which are like the basic building blocks of matter along with the electrons, they told you. Well, they lied to you. Neutrons and protons are not basic; they have smaller building blocks within, called quarks, which have some electric charge. More importantly, they have another kind of charge, which physicists call color, for no particular reason.

These color charges have a weird property. As you pull them apart, the attraction between them increases, which is totally unlike electric charges. So, if you try to pull two quarks apart beyond a very small distance, you have to put in so much energy that you start creating new pairs of quarks (a quantum weirdness, which we will ignore for now). You will never see a naked single quark. You will never see its true color. This quirk of quarks has a fancy name: Quark or Color Confinement. On the other hand, when quarks get closer together, they have little effect on each other. This also has a fancy name – Asymptotic Freedom.

Neutrons and protons have three quarks each, which roam free within a tiny space, giving the impression of them (neutrons and protons) being fundamental particles, within the confines of which they (the quarks) act totally cool, and don’t even feel the presence of one another.  The moment you try to pry one out though, the system of three quarks resists fiercely. If you insist and try harder, you do pry something out. You never get one quark though, but a pair which soon becomes a big ugly mess. And, if you were into that kind of stuff (as my old friends at CERN are), you would spend the rest of your days trying to figure out what happened.

What does it all have to do with romance? Well, not much really. But you wouldn’t have read this far if I hadn’t put that word in the title, would you? It is just that certain developments in my personal life have made me look inward and think. Now, don’t get too inquisitive, don’t pry 🙂

To me, any kind of thought process is best carried out through analogies and patterns, however contrived and tortured they may seem to normal people. Here is an example of such a desperate search for patterns, and another misanthropic one. And one about life itself. I think it is the sign of a true scientist, but then again, it is only my opinion – a rather self-serving one at that.

Back to romancing the quark – I think some people, maybe you, enjoy the same kind of relaxed ease or asymptotic freedom as long as the color force of romance is weak. This ease makes you romantically desirable. But the moment the romantic force begins to make itself felt, you tense up. Unholy thoughts and feelings, such as insecurity and jealousy, begin to pop up, much like the pair production when quarks try to escape their confinement. The descending darkness makes you dislike yourself. And of course, when you don’t like yourself, nobody else is going to like you either and you soon end up in your romantic singlet confinement, after having spawned a stable pairing or an unstable mess for the object of your affection. You are then free once again to enjoy your asymptotic ease, and the cycle continues. Such is the life of a quark, asymptotically free and universally desired, but eternally confined to singlet states devoid of color and romance. That, my friend, is the physics behind romance.

Disclaimer: This study was conducted with a sample size of one and no control group. Make of it what you will.

My Little Girl

My little speech when my little girl turned 21, and my little video, archiving on my blog. Apparently, these little things make most parents cry. Here’s hoping that some children also might find them touching. And give their parents a call, perhaps?

If I have learned one thing in the last 25 years or so, it is this: Never go right after or right before Kavita when it comes to public speaking. The comparison is never going to be good for me. 🙂

But that lesson notwithstanding, this day is special, and I will take one for the daughter this time. Let me start by wishing my daughter, Anita of the house Thulasidas, the first of her name, a very happy birthday, and a year full of wonder and happiness ahead. Today marks your transition to adulthood, with all the independence and responsibilities that it entails. Yeah, it sucks, but you are going to love it. 🙂

At this point, the father is probably supposed to recount cute stories. I have a nice video to do that. I made it for Anita when she turned 16, but as every year passes, it seems more and more appropriate. I will show it later.

As you know, I am educator now. So I educate; I pontificate; I profess. I would like to share a few words on parenting, for the young parents here, or those who plan to be, later in life. Parenting is a balancing act, an almost impossible one. You have to love your child, but not spoil them. You have to provide for them, which means work and time away from them, and you have to find the right balance. You have to foster the right values and character in them, which means strictness. Otherwise they may grow up unprepared into an unforgiving world. But not too much, or you will be robbing them of their childhood as well.

Of all these lessons of parenting, the hardest is this one right here. Your child will one day grow up, take wing and fly away. From your home, from your life. I did it. So has Anita. So will Neil. When that time comes, you will hold the door open for them, and step aside. If they don’t step out, you will have to kick them out. But when they leave, emptiness and pain will follow, through which you will smile. You will hope that, in time, your pride in their accomplishments will fill the void, assuage the pain, and bind and heal the cuts in your soul. I know it did for my father. So, if you do it right, when the time for this hard lesson comes in their life, at the very least, your children will remember you.

And you will hope that they will find their way back home. To your life. Someday. Again, I did it. So you will keep the door open, and leave the light on. And wait. And wait.

But today is not about the parent. It’s about the child. The child who as turned into a beautiful, intelligent, articulate, multi-talented and independent young woman. Lucky that you took after your mother, isn’t it? I just want to tell my little girl – how proud I am of you, and how much I love you. Though you think you already know…

Mud and Me

Life and death has been a recurring theme on my blog. Confronted with our mortality, a common stance we assume is one of anger. Hearing of such a stance recently, I thought I would expand on my notion of gratitude in this writeup, liberally paraphrased from Shelly Kagan’s lectures on this subject.

Gratitude is best described in mystical terms, where we have a generous, benevolent giver (namely God) and a receiver (such as ourselves). A mystic poem that Kagan quoted goes like this (paraphrasing again, of course): God was a bit bored, so he created the universe and all the beauty in it, like the sun and the stars, beaches and mountains, forests and lakes, snow and waterfalls, and so on. At the end of this creation, God wanted an audience. So he looked at some mud on the ground and said, “Sit up and see all this beauty that I have created.” And I sat up and looked. Then I saw. I saw the beauty, not only in love and life and pleasure and happiness and everything nice and great, but also in loss and grief and misery and struggles, in all things bad and mean as well.

I cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am that I got to be the mud that sat up and saw it all. All this beauty. So much of it that it hurts if we allow ourselves to see it. I got to experience the pleasures and the pride, and the pangs and the anguish. I got a glimpse of God’s own thoughts, written in these immense volumes of beauty. Imagine, if my parents had gotten amorous a minute earlier or later, I wouldn’t have been, and all this beauty would have been lost to me. How can I be anything but grateful for this singular fortune, this supreme gift?

What does it matter that my awareness of all this beauty will cease in 20 or so years? Or tomorrow? I see it now. My experience at this point in time is etched in eternity. It is mine. For now. And for ever.

This little bit about eternity is my dim understanding of an old song, but it is also an oblique commentary on the different outlooks of life. The western outlook is that life is a gift to be appreciated, a container to be filled with as many great things that we can muster in this short blink during which it lasts.

But we, of the East, beg to differ. We view life as a burden or suffering (as in Buddhism), or as a difficult patch in the cycle of life and death. We deal with it by not getting too attached to life and its pleasures.

When I say “we,” I am not sure I include myself in it. Well, may be I do. I see the beauty in detachment as well, in actions performed devoid of any attachment to their fruits or glory, in kindness for its own sake, in a life lived to its fullest, but oriented toward a salvation that is the very antithesis of life. I see beauty in our petty fights and our noble gestures, in our worldly worries and our heavenly pursuits. In everything that adds a little piece to this grand collage, a little square to this magnificent Persian rug, a little shade to this dome of many-colored glass, staining the white radiance of eternity. And I am grateful that I get to see it all.

Binding Books

When I was about 15, oh so long ago now, I had this crazy hobby of book binding, which is like the process of turning a paperback into a hardcover, or adding a hardcover to an exercise book. With the mild OCD that I have, I do get a bit carried away with such things, and no books around me or in my dad’s collection were spared. I collaborated with a local printing press to access their cutting machine and local stationery stores to research on various techniques and acquire supplies. My crowning moment was when I did a “full-calico” binding on a rather useless book that my dad had recently purchased.
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Pointlessness

When my mother gave birth to me, it was a touch-and-go sitiuation. I was created with an abnormally huge head, which I would like to insist is filled with a brain the size of a small planet. Whether because of the head or some other medical reason, my mother had to undergo an emergency c-section. Remember, this was more than half a century ago in a remote hill station near Munnar in Kerala.
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Childhood Friend

When I was a child, I had a friend in the neighborhood. A smart (and slightly nerdy) kid, not unlike myself. We used to hang out, play badminton and do physics experiments. By the time we were teenagers, we kind of drifted apart, as our paths diverged. Later on, I went the IIT-USA, global-citizen-route and ended up in Singapore. He, of more modest ambitions, stayed back at home, and got a job roughly similar to what my father used to do. I kept hearing of him, although I never really ran into him. He got married, probably had a couple of kids, and everything must have been going smoothly, even a bit dully. But a couple of years ago he suddenly died of leukemia.

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American School Shooting

Another day, another American school shooting. The predictable aftermath will be “thoughts and prayers” (although people use different words now because of the current climate of skepticism), another pointless debate over gun laws, and a few “never agains” and “never forgets”. Instead of those exercises in futility, I thought I would write about some other curious aspects of America’s deadly romance with guns.

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When Your Child is as Big as You

My mom used to say that when your child is as big as you, you have to treat them with respect. What she actually said was that you had to address them using a respectful form of “you,” which doesn’t make any sense in English, but may work in Hindi or French. It worked poetically well in Malayalam. I was reminded of this maternal pearl of wisdom recently when I was watching a movie with my son.

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