Monday, December 01, 2008

"Next Is What?"

I generally try to keep my blog posts light, short, and if I can manage it, funny. Not this one. I feel heavy and dark in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Mumbai last week. For me, this was a déjà vu of the '93 bomb blasts that I was fortunate to have survived. (I was in my office, interviewing candidates to recruit for my BOLT team when the first bomb rocked the Stock Exchange building.) Like others, I have been feeling anger too - not just a passing annoyance or mild indignation, but a deep, visceral kind of rage, the kind that manifests itself not in a one-time tempestuous outburst of temper, but in wave upon wave of wrath. At first, I was furious at the sheer audacity and impunity of the attacks on November 26. Over the next couple of days, as I kept checking the news every few hours across half a dozen channels waiting for the nightmare to get over, I started getting increasingly pissed off at a whole bunch of people - the politicians (for their negligence: allowing national security to be compromised while playing their power games) the news media (for being insensitive to the repercussions of their actions, in their frenetic competition to uncover the most startling facts, break the most sensational story and win better ratings) the celebrities and the wannabes (for most of whom this was a PR / photo opportunity) etc. Then there were the panel discussions, and there were all kinds of preposterous demands being made by all kinds of people including film and theatre personalities, corporate executives, college students, journalists, business tycoons and so on. Some called for a mass boycott of the elections, some called for mass tax avoidance by Mumbaikars, some called for carpet bombing of suspected camps in Pakistan, and some called for outright war!

I have been learning to let my raw anger settle within me, like tar inside a smoker's lungs, telling myself (and anyone else who might read my status update on Twitter or Facebook): "Hold your anger inside you. Let it sublimate into a constructive plan and let it propel you to take positive steps". It is Monday morning as I start writing this post, and the city is back to normal (whatever that means from now on - it can only be a 'terror-adjusted' normalcy). Some politicians have resigned, some are resigned to resigning and on some resignation has been thrust upon (to paraphrase Shakespeare). This had me asking myself, quoting the Samsung ad - "Next is what?" From the time the attacks started, I have not reacted except for status updates or a few choice comments on social networks, and forwarding some well-written (in my opinion) articles to friends and associates. I wanted to calm my mind, 'still my beating heart' and compose my thoughts as I developed my response to this situation. I think I am approaching readiness now, so I've started writing this post. Don't expect brevity, though I shall give it a shot. My line of reasoning, after a dull weekend speckled with a few bright moments of epiphany, developed around the following sets of questions, in the sequence presented here (fairly simple, really and I would bet that most people with half a brain would have gone through more or less the same questions, more or less in the same sequence):

1. What can we do to stop this once and for all? What is the root cause? What would a permanent solution involve?

2. While we try to find a permanent solution, it is likely that such attacks will continue. How do we manage to protect ourselves each time we are attacked? How do we mitigate the impact of such attacks? How do we recover quickly?

3. What can the common man do to help? What are the avenues for the average person to contribute in solving this problem at various levels?

First, the root cause analysis and the search for a strategic resolution that is both long-term (if not permanent) as well as wider in geographic coverage (if not global). To my mind, terrorist activity in the years after 9/11 resembles a global corporation that operates through a two-tiered distributed franchise model and has embraced the mantra 'think global, act local' (now a stale cliché in business circles). At the apex there seems to be a core group of like minded individuals - a virtual team that is not necessarily tied down by geography, that is responsible for (i) vision, mission, ideology development and evangelism (ii) sourcing of funds and financial sponsorship of strategic programs and tactical strikes (iii) infrastructure, technology / tools, provisioning and project enablement, and (iv) franchise management consisting of indoctrination / recruitment, skills training and deployment. The only major difference between this approach and that of say Yum Brands (KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.), is in terms of branding strategy: when it comes to terrorist networks, brands are amorphous and fluid - terrorists want to remain anonymous to the extent possible and therefore throw out as many brand names as they can, just to confuse the world, making some of them up as they go along, dropping old ones and creating new ones as new recruits and new franchisees enter their operating ecosystem. Some franchisees take on names and those names stick to them, and they are then banned or outlawed in their host country/ies. When this happens, it is not at all difficult for them to morph into another band of outlaws with a brand new brand name. The growth strategy of this global enterprise is to identify pockets of disenchanted but smart, enterprising and able-bodied young men, to stoke their anger and brainwash them with messages of hate (which is not difficult if those smart, enterprising and able-bodied young men are also poor, hungry and unemployed) and to get them to volunteer for missions and strikes, and then train them to deliver terror. The final aim is to destroy everyone who is not 'them' and terrorize those who survive their attacks into submission (conversion). By doing this repeatedly, in different places, they hope that the world will be left with people who either convert to their point of view / system of beliefs out of sheer terror, or die resisting. The core group may not directly get involved with routine business operations - autonomous franchisees are the delivery vehicles of the message, but they would certainly approve specific missions or projects for sponsorship, if not actually advocate, plan and direct them. Quite simply, they want to build a franchise network of the 'disenfranchised' in as many parts of the world they can.

To neutralize this omnipresent yet invisible and intangible network, one may wage war (unconventional war, of course, given the nature of the 'enemy'), or one may try the language of love and peace. It is unlikely that we will ever know which of the two will succeed, but let us think through the options. Personally, I am all for resolution of conflict through peaceful dialogue and negotiation. Not only is war a less civilized approach, but also war is expensive from all points of view (though some may argue that war can trigger economic growth). And this war - in this specific case - involves fighting a hydra-like monster (or Ravana, if you prefer): you cannot behead it one head at a time; you have to take out all its heads, all at the same time, and kill its very core, and that to my mind is an impossible task. I am sure many experts will differ and will assert that taking out just one bearded guy up in the mountains and perhaps a few of his evil cronies will neutralize this problem. Well, let them do that first. If they can. I wish them luck, but my money is on the franchise network that has already been created across the diaspora which, though geographically dispersed, is bound together by the teachings of extremism and the power of hate. No. If you want to take these guys out, you have take them all out - there are way too many of them - and all within a very short timeframe if not simultaneously, so that they don't live to fight another day. Let me go a step further, though I am now venturing into the realm of the ludicrous, and assume that we will be successful in eliminating each and every individual known or even suspected to belong to this network of terror, as well as its financiers. Even if we have done this, it will still not be possible to eliminate the 'meme' since the meme will stay dormant in history books and news archives and the hearts and minds of silent supporters, and will find manifestation again in another space and time, in the not-too-distant future (e.g., neo-Nazism / white supremacism). No, war would not work. To fight hate, we need an equally strong force - love. And if conflict is what 'the enemy' is spoiling for, let us respond with peace.

Love and Peace. Two words I grew up with back in the seventies, of which the Beatles sang many songs. If we were to go down that path, we would need the key western nations of the world to partner with countries like India and others, to jointly go to these guys and smoke the peace pipe. Is this possible? Or am I smoking a pipe with some other stuff in it? I am not sure, but my sense is that this is our only hope. Be that as it may, India could still try and do whatever we can by way of making it difficult for them to recruit disenfranchised Indians to their cause, by keeping its citizens (especially the pockets targeted for recruitment by the preachers of hate) more or less happy with normal life. It is important to remember that most volunteers do not necessarily buy into the grand vision of the core group or perhaps even understand it. But their immature, impressionable minds are fertile grounds to sow the seeds of hatred on the one hand and to impart a sense of purpose on the other. To the disenfranchised youth, the call of the fundamentalist preaching becomes something that gives their lives meaning, a cause they can espouse, an institution they can belong to, a group of people who respect and value them and who they can call their own. If they were not disenfranchised to begin with, they would be less likely candidates for a mission such as the Mumbai attack on November 26. Messages of love can counter those of hate. The more difficult it becomes for fundamentalists to recruit volunteers, the less potent they become. Love and Peace can help in disarming the terrorist apparatus, if not neutralize their agenda. ("All you need is love", "Give peace a chance"!) If our population is by and large enfranchised and happy, if children feel loved and cared for, if young men and women have a sense of belonging to the communities and societies that they are a part of, we would be successful in isolating the core group, who we could then work on, through a process of peaceful dialogue. While this sounds simple, I have no doubt that it is a humongous task. It would be imprudent to assume that we can do so in a short period of time, and to be content with this assumption. We must therefore prepare for a world where such attacks will recur, recur often and recur in different parts of the globe, while we work towards a world of peace and love.

Given that we may be attacked again, what do we do? In listening to the news reports over the last few days, I learned that there was adequate intelligence in the system, for us to have taken precautionary measures to safeguard against this attack, as also to respond to it (when it did happen) with rapid counter-measures. Where did the system fail? It could be that the people who were alerted and needed to act did not see this as a serious threat. It could be that they lacked the will to act. It could be that there were pre-occupied (justifiably or otherwise) with other matters that seemed more important at that time. It could be that they receive several such alerts every day and have grown insensitive to them. It could be anything (and I don't want to speculate on the more sinister possibilities). This needs investigation - it is always good to know what went wrong in the past. However, the bottom line is that each of the "it-could-be's" above needs attention, so that it does not become the reason for inaction in the future (including the more sinister possibilities). Let us consider a three-pronged approach to effective crisis management of terrorist strikes, consisting of:
- prevention of terrorist strikes (how to avert / deflect the occurrence of an attack),
- damage control of inevitable strikes (how to minimize the harm done to lives and property, in cases where the attack could not be averted)
- recovery, reconciliation and retribution in the aftermath of the event (how to restore 'normalcy', how to assess and come to grips with the loss of lives and property, how to deliver justice, learn from this experience and improve the way we handle such attacks in the future).

Prevention requires, firstly, that we have a robust intelligence network that gathers accurate information well in advance, assimilates it and passes it on to the executive authorities. Secondly, it requires that the people who receive such information are empowered to mobilize the various local as well as federal agencies that would be involved in implementing preventive measures. Thirdly, it requires that the agencies who are provided the information and directed to act upon it have access to the right kind of resources, infrastructure and tools which they are able to deploy and execute their mandate speedily. Damage control requires that we improve the efficiency as well as effectiveness of all law enforcement vehicles and our disaster management machinery. These agencies need to be properly funded and their staff appropriately compensated (so pay your taxes, please), adequately trained and equipped with the tools and techniques, and enabled through suitable infrastructure and processes to do their job. Recovery, reconciliation and retribution require that we improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our rescue teams, medical response teams and other agencies that provide relief to victims and their families. Our judicial system needs to be reformed so that we quickly bring justice where justice is needed. This would also send a message to potential terrorists that they cannot escape - we are not a soft target any more.

Which brings us to the last set of questions - what can each of us do to help? The ordinary citizen can contribute in many ways to produce concrete results in each of these areas. Peace marches and demonstrations and expressions of solidarity and resilience are great morale boosters, but we need more, and we need our anger and our energies to be channelled in other, more concrete constructive ways. Ideally, we should prevail on politicians, diplomats and policy makers to work with their counterparts in other countries and adopt a unified approach in peacefully neutralizing the source of terrorist threat through a process of dialogue and negotiation (i.e., try to solve the problem once and for all). Within each country or society, we could work at the individual, community as well as national level to embrace diversity, eschew bigotry and jingoism and achieve harmony with our brethren. India already has a strong secular culture - let's strengthen it and build on it. Our goal should be to not let any section of society feel discriminated against because of their culture or beliefs. As far as safeguards are concerned (i.e., reducing the probability and impact of strikes), at the very least we can help in creating a culture of accountability by constantly persuading the people we elect to take appropriate action. By building adequate pressure on those in power, it should be possible to get them to act on simple practical recommendations towards prevention of, control of, and recovery from terrorists strikes in the future, thereby making the world a safer place. So please vote, and please engage with your elected representatives to make sure they do their job and remain accountable to you. If they fail (regardless of whether they can't or won't take appropriate action), find someone else who can and will do a better job. If they fail too, then, if you really care, take on the mantle yourself. Be the change.