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.