The spectacle of terror

Why the attacks in Mumbai constitute a terrible threat
By EDITORIAL  |  December 5, 2008


We live in an age of spectacle. From the Olympics to the recently concluded presidential election, from professional sports to so-called reality television, the immediate experience of a finite crowd becomes the intimate experience of an almost-limitless audience as a result of technology.

Terrorists are as comfortable with this reality as any Hollywood producer. They live by it, thrive on it. Images are weapons as real as bullets and bombs. That is why the three-day massacre in Mumbai, India — which most notably unfolded at the Taj Mahal hotel, but also at the luxury Oberoi hotel, an Orthodox Jewish community center, and the city's main railway station, among other targets — is an attack on all who are not one with them.

The psychic horror experienced by the world audience pales, of course, in comparison with the suffering of the families of the more than 170 who were killed and hundreds who were wounded in the Mumbai attack. And the trauma suffered by the hostages and their families and friends — indeed, by all of the residents of the most populous city in the world's second most populous nation — is immeasurably more intense than anything even the most shaken spectator can imagine.

For the terrorist, however, gradations of emotion and varieties of pain are distinctions without any meaningful difference. The dead, the wounded, the maimed, and the traumatized are not people with lives and loves and sorrows and joys. Victims are merely a means to an end. The message is clear and the intended effect is chilling: give us what we want or this will happen to you.

Terrorists operate under many flags. Or, like Al Qaeda, under no flag at all. Spain has its Basque separatists; Ireland had the Irish Republican Army; and the United States, the likes of Timothy McVeigh. The Middle East is afflicted with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Kurds in Turkey and guerillas in Colombia practice their own version of gangsterism. India, a vast subcontinent as well as a nation, is itself plagued by Hindu fanatics who are committed to killing or driving out their Muslim neighbors.

It is from the ranks of the Muslims, however, that the platoons of the world's most dedicated and active terrorists are drawn. Even if one were to put aside the Middle East, where the current vogue of terror was born — an impossible task in any full-scale discussion of this topic — the record is incontrovertible: December 1988, a bomb destroys a flight over Scotland; February 1993, a bomb explodes in the underground garage in New York's World Trade Center; November 1997, gunmen attack tourists in Egypt; September 2001, two planes level the World Trade Center, a third crashes into the Pentagon, and a fourth — also aimed at Washington — is downed in Pennsylvania after passengers seek to rest control from terrorists; January 2002, Daniel Pearl of the Wall Street Journal is abducted and killed in Pakistan; October 2002, a car bomb destroys a tourist dance club in Bali; March 2004, 10 bombs explode on four trains in Madrid; September 2004, hundreds of children, parents, and teachers die when guerillas storm a school in Chechnya; July 2005, bombs explode on three subway trains and a city bus in London. Add to this catalogue the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. And now Mumbai.

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