The attackers terrorizing the city of Mumbai for the past few days appear strangely familiar to many Americans. We have seen angry young men toting automatic rifles and backpacks full of weapons before. The similarities between the U.S. kids that occasionally wreak havoc on our public schools and the Mumbai terrorists may seem slight but there are insights to be gained from a careful comparison of the two situations. It will be especially important for civil authorities in India to look at the way other nations have responded to similar asynchronous attacks.
The government crackdown on all forms of protest, such as occurred in the United States after 2001, was not appropriate. Anti-war protesters were met with billy clubs and tasers in many cities. Federal, state, and local authorities were directed to spy on all organized groups, even environmentalists and anti-war groups that opposed any agendas of the Bush Administration. This suspension of Constitutional rights did not result in greater security for U.S. citizens. Suspending or restricting civil liberties for the masses is no way to address the existence of extremely violent fringe groups.
The British responded to violence from IRA or Protestant militants and even common criminals by increasing the use of sophisticated closed-circuit television systems. This may not prevent attacks from happening but it does allow the authorities to respond much more quickly. Police departments can only afford to put so many eyes and ears on every street at all hours but TV cameras come at a much lower cost. The loss of personal privacy is one counter argument but once you leave your home the expectation of privacy is naturally diminished.
Computer-controlled television systems in use in London and other major UK cities allow the police to track individual faces. However if you are out to do no harm the fact that the police may be looking at you should cause little worry. Yes, there is the Big Brother implication bequeathed to us by George Orwell but young people seem to enjoy recording and sharing their activities these days anyway. Millions of videos and photographs are placed up on the Internet every day with little concern for what they reveal about the subjects.
As long as the increased surveillance is used only to thwart serious crime and violence it must be tolerated. In any event, the video cameras are unlikely to go away.
There is a more effective way to counter the attacks such as those that just occurred in Mumbai or even the jihadist attacks more frequently seen since 2001. The strategy involves studying and resolving the root causes of deep social unrest. The attackers themselves do seem to offer clues as to their driving motivations. In the same way that we hate to give in to ransom demands from pirates or kidnappers, leaders are often reluctant to admit public policy faults as a cause of violent attacks.
The unresolved problems in Kashmir were well-known for years before they were mentioned by at least one of the Mumbai terrorists. Problems in the Middle East are often cited by Islamic militants. Teenage perpetrators of extreme violence in U.S. schools often display similar signs of anti-social behaviors and even violent tendencies prior to many attacks. As a society we need to get better at spotting these signals of unrest and, as much as we hate to admit it, doing something concrete to solve the underlying problems. While every demand for religious freedom or solutions to economic inequality cannot be met, we need to understand that they do lead some people to take drastic actions. Solving the root problems may take time but very public work still needs to be done, no matter what the time frame. Otherwise fringe groups will see no other alternative except to draw public attention to their causes through mass casualties and disruption of society. These actions typically cause more disruption and cost more to a society than addressing the root problems behind them.