The tragedy that has struck America is too poignant for words. As I write, the toll is rising. When the dust settles, we're likely to find that anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 people have had their lives cut short. In various parts of the world, there are people who openly express their satisfaction that the mighty, presumptive ruler of the world has been struck a crippling blow where it is most vulnerable—in its image of itself. There are many more who regret the huge loss of life but feel the US brought the tragedy onto itself by involving itself in too many places, too often, and not always on the side of justice.
These views are grievously wrong. If the attack was on the US' power and capacity to strong-arm the world, that capacity remains undented while the will behind it may actually have hardened. If it was on the US as a symbol of an unjust order, that world order remains and, given the remorseless logic of globalisation, cannot but remain unaffected. What has changed forever is the lives of those killed or wounded, and that of the many more thousands who loved them.
There are profound lessons to be learned from the tragedy. The growth of world terrorism has been co-terminous with globalisation and there is an obvious connection between the two. But the time for reflection, and for remedial action, will come later. Today, the US needs to cope with the immediate fallout of the terrorist attack, both on its people and its position in the post-Cold War world order. What needs to be done at home is well understood and has been taken in hand in an exemplary fashion. Where confusion and conflict remain is over how the US should react to the attack if, as seems likely, it was masterminded from abroad.
Understandably, there has been a call for revenge from some Americans and this demand is likely to grow stronger as the full horror of the tragedy sinks in. President George W. Bush has already promised that 'those who harboured (the terrorists) will not be spared'. The word 'harbour' casts the net far wider than words like 'plotted', 'conspired' or 'masterminded'. It includes not only those actually involved in the plot but also the larger population that shares the sentiments of the suicide bombers but was not only not involved in but might have disapproved of what was planned. Bush would do well to keep this distinction in mind. The former need to be hunted out and punished and the whole world will help do so. But to take revenge on the latter will only compound the crime the terrorists committed.
Restraining those calling for blood will take a great act of statesmanship. But America needs to remember that its position as the hegemonistic power in the new international order requires it to exercise a far higher degree of restraint than is expected of smaller countries. The global order of the future will only be stable if its leader is seen to be judicious in exercising its military and other powers. That is a difficult lesson the US is still in the process of learning. The learning will now have to be completed in a hurry in the most emotionally trying of circumstances.
If the US has been the first victim of a new level of sophistication in global terrorism, India could well be the next. With the Israelis having virtually ruled out the involvement of Hamas and Al Jihad, the Palestinian organisations that have been sending suicide bombers into Israel, suspicion has focused on Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda.But Al Qaeda is a key element in a coalescing network of fundamentalist organisations that regard themselves as an army of Islam. Some others are the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Al-Badr, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), and since recently, the Jaish-e-Mohammed. All of these are focused obsessively upon India and have repeatedly warned they intend to go for high-profile targets in Delhi.
The existence of a loose global network of terrorist organisations was acknowledged by British intelligence on May 27, 1999, hours after the start of the Kargil war, when it let The Telegraph and The Independent know that such a network was probably behind the intrusion. It also pointed out that the network was coordinated by Pakistan's isi. Indian analysts have reason to suspect that the coordinator was none other than the former hardline chief of Pakistan army staff, Gen Muhammad Aziz, currently the corps commander in Lahore.
The spectacular success of the attack on the US can't but infuse a new zeal into those targeting Kashmir and India. If Al Qaeda is indeed behind it, its links with the "Army of Islam" makes it virtually certain that the LeT and Jaish will soon have access to the technology and resources used in the US. India would do well to take precautions against a nightmare eventuality in which one of these manages to "steal" a nuclear weapon from a Pakistani stockpile and get it into a plane operating in, or bound for, Indian skies.
Since hijacking an airliner is the key to the success of the plan, and since the terrorists seem to have solved the problem of getting lethal weapons past metal detectors, the first thing New Delhi must do is to reinforce the body searches that are mandatory in theory but often perfunctory in practice at most Indian airports. A second, even more important need is to ensure that access is completely denied to the cockpit at all times during a flight. This would need some remodelling and enlargement of the cockpit and very probably an armour-plating of the partition between it and the rest of the plane. Indeed, had such steps been taken when hijackings first began, scores of planes would have been spared this fate, the World Trade towers would still have been standing, and several thousand of America's—and India's—best and brightest would have been alive today. It speaks volumes for the power of profit that no airline has even considered such changes, for fear of losing a few paying seats.
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