On the Mumbai Terror Attacks

On the Mumbai Terror Attacks November 28, 2008

I had planned to post on a different topic today, but my attention has been riveted – as I’m sure everyone’s has – by the horrific events still unfolding in Mumbai. A well-organized and ruthless group of several dozen heavily armed terrorists has slipped into the city, attacking lightly guarded civilian targets with assault rifles and grenades, apparently targeting Western tourists. Over a hundred innocent people are dead, hundreds more wounded, and some of Mumbai’s famous landmarks are in flames. Details are still emerging sketchily from the chaos, and the repercussions on this city of 19 million, the capitol of India’s financial and film industries, have yet to be seen.

It seems certain that these terror attacks will reverberate in Indian consciousness as the equivalent of 9/11 on Americans – if not in sheer loss of life, then in terms of the panic, disruption and chaos caused. I can only imagine the effect on New York if there were heavily armed terrorists shooting at innocents in Grand Central Station and taking hostages at the Waldorf Astoria. There will be many families in India and elsewhere mourning tonight.

It’s not yet known who bears responsibility for this horrendous crime. Nationalist fervor over Kashmir has been a contributing factor to similar terror attacks in the past, but the apparent focus on Western nationals suggests a different motive this time. For me, I find the conclusion unavoidable that the toxic brew of Islamic fundamentalism has given rise to yet another savage assault on human life and dignity.

The fanatics who wage attacks like this may be living in the modern day, but their minds are dwelling in the past. The primitive, medieval mindset – with all its violence and brutality, its poisonous notions of tribalism and honor, its rigid and unwavering certainty, and its zealot’s thirst for bloodshed and holy war – has been imported into the present. Everywhere it arises, it causes innocents to suffer; and when the hands that do its bidding are equipped with modern weapons, the consequences are far more horrible.

The terrorists’ aim was probably to damage diplomatic relations between India and Pakistan, and it seems likely they’ve succeeded. With both sides armed with nuclear weapons, and with the factions of nationalist and fundamentalist fervor wrestling for the controls, the potential consequences are too terrible to imagine. I wrote about this trend in “Fossil Fuels“:

In the Bronze Age civilizations where it was born, religion’s destructive ability was limited: a few local skirmishes, at worst a regional conflagration. But just like fossil fuels now underpinning the global economy, the fever of faith has spread, and is now infecting not small, roaming desert tribes, but vast, globe-spanning civilizations standing eye-to-eye with the keys to apocalypse in their hands.

These attacks have shown the impossibility of preventing terrorist attacks by guarding every possible target. My home city clearly hasn’t learned that lesson, as one can see from this story about the police overreacting to yet another substanceless terror threat. Unless they put guards at every subway entrance and search every passenger, there is no way this could thwart a determined terrorist – and even then, an attacker could just target a mall or a department store instead.

Terrorism and religious zealotry cannot be defeated by force, neither at home nor abroad. What we need more than ever is for the voice of reason to prevail. In the short term, it’s a vital calming and guiding influence on leaders whose fingers hover over the nuclear button, and an essential counterpoint to the overheated raving of would-be holy warriors. But in the long term, it is beneficial as well. As many others have observed, the war over terrorism is fundamentally a battle of ideas: democracy against theocracy, liberty against authoritarianism, the future against the past, change against tradition, globalism against tribalism.

To win that battle, we must persuade the world that our values are superior. The way to ultimately stop terrorism is not to kill or imprison all its plotters, but to erode their popular support and delegitimize them in their home countries. We must win the battle of reason by presenting a cogent case for our society and an appealing vision of what we stand for. The outgoing Bush administration, which has done its best to ruin America’s image abroad through dictatorial polices of torture, arbitrary imprisonment and preemptive war, never understood this. It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration does. But in any case, we freethinkers and rationalists – in America, in India, and everywhere in the world – have a duty to speak out loud and clear for our values, and to lobby and push our leaders toward the correct path. In the long run, a dedicated voice of reason – not the madness of competing fundamentalisms – is the only thing that can make tragedies like this a distant memory and guide the world toward a brighter future.

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