Fighting terrorism, starting with the easy stuff

Manage grievances, improve social capital, take security seriously and get better ambulances.

This appeared in Saturday’s DNA.

It’s not difficult to set off a bomb blast in Mumbai, or for that matter in any Indian city. It doesn’t require the person to be highly trained, it just requires the person to be motivated enough to want to do it. It doesn’t even need foreign terrorists to use inflatable rafts to land on isolated beaches, or trek across high Himalayan terrain. It just needs local individuals with greed, grievance, or sheer malice to be persuaded to use locally available material — with some help from those who know who to rig up explosives — to plant a bomb or three.

If our cities don’t suffer terrorist attacks more regularly, it is, to some extent, because our much-maligned police forces manage to foil some conspiracies. The main reason might well be that not too many people want to commit terrorist attacks. If they did, we would see terrorist attacks become as common as other acts of serious crime.

Tackling terrorism, therefore, requires us to ensure that terrorism doesn’t become more attractive. The greedy and the malicious can be deterred by raising their costs: if would-be terrorists are exposed, caught and punished, such people might not want to take the risk. Those with grievances can be harder to deter, so we need to ensure that we address them and don’t create new ones. It is impossible to completely erase grievances, but we can manage them. One way to do this is to strengthen social capital. It’s hard to do this in Mumbai, a city given to outpourings of selfless public-spiritedness during crises but abjectly lacking a public ethic otherwise, but it has to be attempted. Mumbai needs to link its social islands together more urgently today than at any time in its history.

We cannot stop a really motivated terrorist, but we can make it hard for him to succeed. Our shopping malls, office buildings, car parks, bus stands and railway stations have installed metal detectors and the like and appointed security personnel to operate them. Let’s be honest: most of the time, it’s just a charade engaged in by both sides. The security people pretend to be checking us, and we play along. How many times have security guards asked to inspect the boot of your car without even bothering about what’s on the back seat?

The places for the rich and powerful — five-star hotels, government buildings and upmarket offices — are veritable fortresses. Most other places at most times just cheat. Yes, it’s not practical for a solitary metal detector to screen a crowd fast enough. That suggests we install more detectors or devise sophisticated methods to screen some people. In any case, the dishonest business of going through the motions has to stop. Do we introspect on our own lack of diligence with a tenth of the energy we use to, quite rightly, blame the government for failing to prevent a bomb blast?

Similarly, does it register in our collective mind that our emergency services are pathetic? After Wednesday’s bomb blasts, bodies and survivors were carried to hospitals in appalling conditions. Why do we have such poor and so few public service ambulances? Is our fire brigade really equipped to handle a city of over 13 million people? Why, do we give way to emergency vehicles while driving everyday? If we cannot prevent diabolical terrorists from trying to kill people indiscriminately, we can certainly try to mitigate the damage. At Thursday’s press conference, reporters asked questions about such things as intelligence failure and what India might do if the plotwere traced back to Pakistan. No one asked why it is that in the richest city of a country with claims to be a global power, survivors had to be bundled in the back of rusty cargo vans to be taken to hospital.

Preventing terror attacks is very tough. Much of it is not in our hands. But making sure we take security procedures seriously is in our hands. So too is insisting that Mumbai have an adequate number of decent ambulances. It’s important to get the simpler things right first.

The author is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati — The Indian National Interest Review

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