There are many enraging aspects of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. The worst, though, is the sobering realization that terrorism can be wildly successful.
A few preliminary points though: For now, I’m rejecting the idea that Mumbai was a new breed of “celebrity terrorists” who are essentially nihilistic (via abu m). I’m assuming the attackers had a larger purpose. I’m also persuaded by Juan Cole’s excellent post speculating that the group was most likely a rogue splinter group from the larger (and Pakistani-supported) Lashkar-e-Taiba (with an emphasis on “rogue” and “splinter”). As Cole and Apocalypse Now teach us, trained militants are often hard to control.
Anyway, one of the goals of modern terrorism (particularly radical Islamic terrorism) is to trigger an overreaction by the victim country. In this respect, al Qaeda was wildly successful. One goal of 9/11 was to trigger a massive invasion of Afghanistan and create a new quagmire. Fortunately, bin Laden underestimated the world’s outrage, along with the success of the initial military operations. Luckily for him though, we fulfilled his wildest dreams by invading and occupying Iraq, a country with far more sacred sites. And we’ll be dealing with the blowback from this war for decades to come.
Similarly, I’d say provoking India to overreaction was way up on the terrorists' list of goals. As Daniel Benjamin notes in Slate, igniting tensions between the two countries benefits the terrorists in numerous ways. For one, it destabilizes a relatively hostile Pakistani government. Second, it prevents détente between the countries and thus halts progress on a Kashmir settlement. Third, it keeps the world polarized (the attacks on Westerners were intended to stoke these particular fires).
What’s maddening – and terrifying – is that the strategy might work. It certainly worked on us. And India will have a hard time resisting the urge to do something to avenge the attacks – the political pressure may prove too strong. Iraq was no picnic to be sure, but an outbreak of hostilities between two nuclear-armed states would be a different animal altogether – one that must be avoided at all costs.
Even more maddening though, India’s outrage and desire for revenge are absolutely reasonable. To be sure, revenge will lead to horrible things, but it’s unrealistic to expect a country to stoically endure attacks like these, particularly from groups with loose affiliations with a hostile state. It would have been similarly foolish to expect that Americans would be content to do nothing after terrorists training in Taliban-sheltered camps attacked it.
Even though Pakistan itself probably had little to do with this attack, it’s true that their military has (at best) turned a blind eye to the training of these individuals for attacks in Kashmir. We’re now seeing the blowback, as Cole eloquently argues. And it’s going to be hard – if not impossible – to persuade Indians not to blame Pakistan for this outrage.
And that brings us back to the real problem with terrorism – its potential for success. Terrorism gives way to a nationalistic fury that is hard to contain or to channel in constructive ways. Even the most reasonable people get outraged – and are right to be outraged.
Even worse though, most countries (India and USA included) have hyper-nationalist parties ready to seize upon tragedies like these for domestic gain, regardless of the collateral damage the parties' proposed policies would cause. Of course, the outrage these parties exploit is perfectly understandable, and it’s universally shared. And the terrorists know this – indeed, they’re counting on it. That's what often makes their strategy successful.
It's just infuriating -- you want to get mad, but getting mad is exactly what they want. Indeed, it's part of the plan.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this – the situation just really frightens me. I fear we could be on the brink of WWI-style situation where we lose control of events. In the run-up to WWI, even though everyone knew on some level that nationalistic overreaction would lead to even more horrible outcomes, the internal politics drove them all past the point of no return. Events ultimately spiraled out of control, and the 20th Century never fully recovered.
I don’t have any answers – but the rising anger in India is arguably the most urgent issue on Earth at the moment. So I hope someone does.