While we wait for the final butcher’s bill from the slaughter in Mumbai, we should reflect on what this incident tells us about the world we live in. As always with such events, the sadness we feel over the murder of innocents mixes with anger and bafflement. Acts of terror are purposeful. They seek to inflict panic and despair. The horrors perpetrated in Mumbai aren’t a tragedy but a monstrous crime.
Beyond today’s bloodshed, however, I see reasons for hope. Indiscriminate attacks ultimately drive people to self-defense rather than fear. That has happened in enough countries that the geography of the war against Islamist terrorists has been reduced to a few places, all bordering, or somehow linked to, Pakistan. It’s an easy guess that India will soon join the list of nations hardened against terror.
Sriprakash Jaiswal, minister of state for home affairs, told reporters Friday that India’s state governments were warned to boost coastal security two years ago. “But now with the new challenges, we will have to deal with this issue on a war footing,” he said.
The question now becomes how to finish off the war: a question our next president will inherit.
A few generalizations can be drawn from the events in Mumbai. First and most obviously, there are still people whose ideology escapes the restraints of human morality. In Mumbai, individuals were killed because of their nationality, or because they stood in the wrong place, or for no reason at all, other than the killers wished to call attention to themselves. A 13-year-old girl from Virginia was murdered. A young rabbi from Brooklyn and his wife were killed. Diners and waiters at the Leopold Cafe were blown up by a hand grenade thrown into the restaurant.
We have met these murderers before, in many places. Like vampires, they feed on blood. Their ilk was responsible for 9/11 in New York and Washington, 3/11 in Madrid, 7/7 in London, the massacre in Bali, and the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq. They are still among us. In an open society, a few killers can wreak immense destruction: one report placed the number of terrorists in Mumbai at 25. That’s the bad news.
Yet the cause these people represent is on the wane. After spectacular strikes in the US and Europe, terror operatives have been unable to penetrate the hardened security environment brought about by these attacks. Here, initial success created the conditions for ultimate failure. Western surveillance intensified. Sources of terror funding were identified and cut off. Planned atrocities were discovered, and would-be perpetrators imprisoned. The last — and only — catastrophic attack on US soil was 9/11. The last such attack in Europe took place in 2005.
In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the regimes have wiped out violent Islamist groups and put in place fairly successful ideological counteroffensives. In Iraq, al Qaida’s attempt to sunder the country along sectarian lines has failed utterly. The Iraqi Sunnis, sick of the slaughter, eventually turned their guns on their terrorist allies. The Iraqi government, with US support, has swept the terrorists out of the cities into the inhospitable countryside. Today, Islamist terror faces a strategic catastrophe in what was its most promising battleground.
The tactics used in Mumbai are symptomatic of weakness rather than growing power. The terrorists attacked hotels and restaurants because they rightly feared encounters with the military. In Iraq and elsewhere, such encounters have led to disastrous reverses for the holy warriors. While their stated goal is to conquer a Muslim country, killing girls and rabbis will hardly get them there. They murder innocents because it’s easy, garners the attention of mass media, and fosters the illusion of power — but it also hardens the environment against future attacks, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to strike twice in the same region. Each atrocity shinks the battlefield.
In Pakistan, last hiding place of Osama bin Laden and his commanders, Islamist terror remains alive and dangerous.
Pakistan’s political institutions, never stable, have been shaken by al Qaeda-style strikes. The country is now in the business of exporting terror — west to Afghanistan, east to India, and across half the world to Britain. Instability emanates from the tribal areas, but at least some in the ruling establishment are keen to promote an extreme form of Islam. The Taliban, after all, was a creature of the Pakistani government. Thus the instability may well increase, with all this portends for a nuclear-armed nation.
Just as likely, however, is a reaction against the violence by the Pakistani people and their rulers, following the pattern set in Europe and the Middle East. That is obviously the outcome toward which the new President, once in office, should exert whatever influence he possesses. We can’t bring back to life the victims of terror, but we can hunt their murderers in their hiding-holes: more, we have a duty to bring retribution, and impose the highest cost possible on the slaughter of innocents as a political publicity stunt.