Events in Mumbai (Bombay) offer several lessons for the war on terror.
Sisyphus is the most helpful of all the experts. He is the chap condemned to roll forever a huge boulder up a hill, never reaching the top.
The war is enervating and--as far as we can see into the future--endless.
There is no substitute for a lot of work that does not contribute clearly to the protection of the innocent, yet may deter the violent. Israelis have gotten used to being inspected upon entering shopping malls and supermarkets. International travelers have learned not to carry fingernail clippers on their person, nor to approach check points with bottles of water, and to wear shoes that are easy to shed for inspection.
As I began to write this, information about a terror plot caused the police to erect roadblocks on the approaches to Tel Aviv during the morning rush hour. Traffic jams stretched over the horizon. The roadblocks did not produce any villains. Perhaps they dissuaded some from their mission.
Citizens gripe about threats to human rights, Guantanamo, ethnic profiling, as well as the expense and inconvenience of security. No one can be sure that any one action is useful. There are fanatics who do harm in the name of national security. Civilized countries must screen their protective services for sadists who would prey on the vulnerable.
Not all the Israeli soldiers and police at the checkpoints treat Arabs appropriately. There are back and forth claims of insufficient investigation of abuses, against assertions that most of the alleged abuses did not occur.
There are not enough geniuses to supply all the personnel needed in this war. Israeli Jews born in Iraq or Iran have more trouble than others getting visas to the United States. White haired grandparents of obvious European origin must pass through the same screening at airports as young adults, traveling alone, with dark skin and beards.
Despite the intensity of the safeguards, there remain soft areas, some of them known to the bad people, where it is possible to wreck havoc.
The point of all the preventative actions, many of which are trivial and disturbing, is to send the bad people to areas that are less thorough in defending themselves.
Some of these soft spots, like India, generate their own reasons for terror. High on the list of "injustices" that motivated the killers in Mumbai were Kashmir, and the alleged misfortunes of their Muslim brothers and sisters in India. Reports are that they did not proclaim their concern for Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, they made a point of going after Jews, as well as tourists from the United States and Britain. Fashions prevail in the world of Muslim fanatics.
The violent who targeted Bali had no trouble citing injustices in Indonesia, as well as finding visiting infidels who added to the pollution that they perceived.
The price of civilization is threat from the barbarians. The Chinese and Romans built walls. Israelis, Americans, and others maintain security at airports and elsewhere, limit privacy, and other civil rights. Those actions may help. They do not assure safety. We have all seen guards who were nonchalant or tired.
Americans might think of posting checkpoints and guards at the entrances to all public buildings, including schools and shopping centers. They could stop some of the deranged locals intent on killing fellow workers or schoolmates, as well as terrorists with more elaborate motives. Who wants the expense and the bother? Is the occasional disaster preferable?
It was possible to deal with earlier waves of terror by concerted action, as well as waiting for the passing of fashions among people who aspire to revolution. European anarchists, Weathermen, Beider Meinhof, and Black Panthers no longer trouble us. None had the theological infrastructure of radical Islam. We are still waiting for the magic bullets that will protect us from them without inconvenience or worse for innocent people, some of whom are Muslim, or look like they might be Muslim.
Sisyphus was miserable. So are the rest of us, especially when we lose yet another battle in the ongoing war. The hill is long and steep. We cannot see the top. We have no great ideas about how to get there.
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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325