The year after

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

Lessons learnt, and yet to be learnt, from the events of September 11, 2001.

AS this column is being written, it is less than a week for the anniversary of an event that nearly wiped out the faith in humanity from all of us who believed in civilised living. Possibly, after Adolf Hitler, the one man who will be remembered right through history for insanity and mindless violence goes by the name Osama bin Laden. What causes anguish to many espousing the cause of non-violence is that there are still some who will burn incense at the feet of this monster that gloats over what he has done and actually regrets not having hit harder than he did on September 11. Watching "Perspectives" put out by Cable News Network (CNN) a few days ago, I was convinced that one did not have to belong to the families of victims to feel the agony. The pain was too intense for words. This is why the growing controversy whether Ground Zero will have to yield place to a memorial or a new commercial complex is unfortunate. It seems so insensitive to the wounds that are yet to heal.

Since, however, life is one such long continuum, we will have to get on with our chores and examine what we can do to prevent insanity from striking at us once more. We in India especially should remember that what happened in New York could have been in Mumbai or New Delhi, and any assessment to the contrary is utterly naive. We need not be paranoid about this, but to lose sight of the need for being prepared for such a catastrophe could be ruinous.

Taking stock of what we have achieved in these 12 months and what we have not, is being merely pragmatic. There seems no place for sentiment. What irks us most is that bin Laden is yet to be traced. This is a failure that cannot be condoned, whatever be the odds against locating him. We drew some comfort in the early days of the U.S. offensive in the caves of Afghanistan that he could not have survived the fury of that onslaught. But none could offer proof that he had actually perished. Then came the disturbing report that he was still very much alive and kicking, probably somewhere in climes friendly to him. We have, in fact, seen recent tapes where he frets and fumes against the U.S. and all its allies. It is now reasonable to believe that he is still around, and that in whatever physical shape he is, we can expect him to hit us again. Any future strategy will have to proceed on this assumption.

What is required is hard ground intelligence on his whereabouts, which the mighty Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) put together are yet to produce. This is an index of the massive international effort that is demanded. Indian agencies may also have to work towards this, particularly in the context of occasional tidings that bin Laden had possibly received shelter in the remote areas of Pakistan. Such reports cannot be discredited, given Pakistan's record for duplicity and the strength of the country's rabid clerics to whom bin Laden is very much of a cult figure. We should be conscious that not merely the U.S., but we also have high stakes in neutralising him. While he does not need any justification to perpetrate violence and disorder in our heartland, Kashmir and Gujarat are festering issues that could provide the platform.

GENERALLY speaking, there are two strategies that are mentioned in this context: long-term and short-term. Many U.S. initiatives have been assailed as being too focussed on the immediate requirements of preventing a repeat of 9/11 at the cost of evolving a long-term vision. Critics look upon this as being short-sighted, if not actually blind, because there is apparently no concern over how to convert young Islamic elements that are itching to carry bin Laden's mission forward even after his lifetime. In this context it is interesting to draw attention to an Arnold Brown article in the recent issue of Futurist where he speaks of "the critical demographic component of the clash of cultures". Shades of Samuel Huntington? Brown also refers to a significant work, The Imperial Animal, by two renowned anthropologists, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, who agree that it is vital for modern society to examine how best to tackle young males and their energies. This advocacy seems unexceptionable.

The argument is that it is the underdeveloped world, especially the Islamic nations, as compared to the affluent West, that has too many angry young men for our comfort and whose "testosterone-fuelled energies" are a source of danger and marked religious intolerance of the variety displayed by Al Qaeda. This theory may appear fanciful to some. I am not sure whether we can afford to dismiss it as such. Given the authoritarian rule of most of the Muslim world and its proclivity to confine power and pelf to dominant families, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and substantial parts of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Gulf countries, I am positive that the large numbers of the youth kept out of the charmed circle of rulers and their hangers-on are only waiting to vent their ire at anyone or any nation that bolsters such inequity.

The U.S.' penchant for propping up infamous regimes built around self-centred families is too well known to hide from the underprivileged Islamic youth. So, any long-term strategy to diminish those now in the forefront organisations such as Al Qaeda and cut off channels of fresh recruitment to them will depend on a new orientation being given to U.S. foreign policy. This is a complex issue that is beyond the scope of this column. Suffice it to say that the future cannot be taken care of unless the U.S. displays a change of heart. The strident U.S. official stance that Saddam Hussein will have to be removed, whatever be the costs, does not however square with this perception of a long-term strategy that would seek to whittle down those who pay obeisance to bin Laden and others of his ilk.

Our principal achievement since 9/11 is one of instilling in our citizens a measure of discipline that was pathetically absent earlier. People are willing to submit themselves to the most inconvenient and unpleasant physical checks of their person and belongings without protest while entering public buildings. This is especially striking at airports where a series of checks, especially the one immediately before boarding an aircraft, have made air travel irksome but definitely safer. There is a general awareness of how our safety could be imperilled if we did not take a few fundamental precautions. I am confident that the message will percolate down to our children, contributing to the arrival of a new generation that would render terrorist tasks much more difficult. There can, however, be no let-up in our efforts at indoctrinating the average citizen.

The U.S. scene is no different. The ordinary American, who is so much used to freedom and privacy, has taken in his stride the intrusion into his life by law enforcement agencies. Actually, he has occasionally gone overboard in causing unwarranted hold-ups of foreigners whenever the latter gave room for suspicion through some innocuous acts unfamiliar to the American eye. The widely reported travails recently of a cultural troupe from Kerala while flying within the U.S. may be amusing but have definitely hurt our susceptibilities. But then, this is the cost that we will have to pay if we are to fortify ourselves against terrorist deeds.

One is also witness to enhanced standards of policing vis-a-vis the terrorist. The incredible response of the securitymen to terrorist gunfire in the Parliament House complex in Delhi on December 13 is a testament to this. Moving about within and outside the country, I discern a degree of mental alertness and a state of physical preparedness among policemen, which should infuse confidence in the average traveller. Interaction with a few foreign business teams reinforces the feeling that many corporates are now comfortable transacting business with or handing over projects of great magnitude to their Indian counterparts. This is heartwarming against earlier reports of reluctance of foreign investors to come to India after 9/11 and after the India-Pakistan hostilities and in the context of the definite decline in tourist arrivals. Our media will have to take the cue and highlight this positive side of the Indian situation.

Another encouraging development has been the passing of the Prevention of Money Laundering Bill by both Houses of Parliament. This is no guarantee that money will no longer pass on to terrorists within the country. But it gives the much-needed legal strength to the dedicated banker and devoted members of the enforcement agencies. In the wake of this law, the Reserve Bank of India has initiated a series of measures that give hope that suspicious transactions will come under a scan. The reiteration of the 'Know Your Customer' direction and the requirement that banks report to regulating agencies cash transactions worth over Rs.10 lakhs is most welcome. But it needs to be monitored vigorously, and any violation of this salutary principle of banking will have to be dealt with sternly. A just-concluded seminar on bank frauds and commercial crime, conducted in Kochi by the Indian Institute of Bankers, Mumbai, discussed this at some length. It is hoped that occasions such as these will be utilised all over the country to enlighten bankers that they do have a role in strengthening national security.

WHILE air traffic has been made fairly secure from terrorist machinations, there is a disconcerting report that Al Qaeda and similar outfits may take advantage of an easier route to send terrorist contraband into enemy territory. We know that the volume of commercial cargo that enters any country has become so enormous that it is subjected to minimum scrutiny, if not to no scrutiny at all. The smuggling of nuclear and chemical weapons through containers with a view to causing mass casualties is a distinct possibility that is chilling. Paul J. Smith, who teaches at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, Hawaii, raises this apprehension in the Summer 2002 issue of Parameters. Here he points out how an Al Qaeda operative, an Egyptian national, was found locked inside a container intercepted by Italian authorities last October. The container was equipped with a bed and a bath! Can you match this ingenuity? Does this not heighten the need for extreme vigilance while handling large containers arriving by sea or air?

Finally, the full implications of cyber terrorism are yet to be understood in our country. An attack on our critical infrastructure, such as power plants and air traffic control, through cyberspace can in particular be disastrous. The creation of an Indo-U.S. cyber security forum last April is welcome. Its specific charter is unclear. It is hoped that the incredible talent that is available in the private sector in both countries will be drawn upon to make this forum live and action-oriented.

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