Defusing Terrorists’ Impact

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, the very alarming scenarios of India-Pakistan conflict, as well as the question of the degree of Pakistani institutional involvement, have dominated the discussion. That’s fine and necessary. But Bruce Hoffman’s takeaway in his National Interest piece is noteworthy as well:

The attacks demonstrate how a small number of armed and trainedterrorists can paralyze a city, stymie the security force, underminepublic confidence in the ability of government and the authorities torespond, and generate worldwide attention and publicity.

At first glance, that seems relatively obvious. My own first reaction, in discussing the attacks with a friend, was that if they resulted in a nuclear exchange in South Asia, ten guys would have essentially changed the course of human history. And unlike Hoffman, I’m not a professor at Georgetown University.

Now, not every terrorist attack garners the same amount of attention or exerts the same kind of leverage on global events. But when you take a step back, the orders of magnitude difference between cause and effect is pretty mind-boggling, even when you take into account the training, logisticalsupport and command and control structures these individuals benefitted from.

To take an anecdotal detail of the 9/11 attacks as an illustration, and setting aside the murderous intent, imagine being simply and exclusively tasked to shut down American airspace entirely, that is to ground every single airplane flying in American airspace, with a budget of a couple hundred grand and twenty guys. Even if the entire project was greenlighted and legal, it would still be close to impossible.

Through a convergence of terrorists’ savvy with the structural changes in the mediasphere, an enormously disproportionate impact can be brought to bear by applying what really amounts to minute pressure to geopolitical faultlines. To give an idea, based on these World Bank automobile statistics, more people died of car accidents in India on the day of the attacks than in the attacks themselves. But we are now seriously and soberly considering the possibility of a worst-case scenario that involves nuclear war.

To my mind, this underlines the need to formulate a new paradigm for how we, by which I mean the global community, experience and respond to these kinds of attacks in order to defuse their asymmetric power. An approach that combines restraint, resilience and resolve, and that balances the need to protect ourselves from these pathological psychopaths with the acceptance that we can never be fully immune.

I don’t know quite what that would look like, or whether it’s possible. But I, for one, am tired of how much power is being handed over to so few people with so little imagination.

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