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How the public can help counter terror

How the public can help counter terror
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First Published: Wed, Mar 10 2010. 10 01 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Mar 10 2010. 10 01 PM IST
For many of us who have been brought up learning about conflicts based on conventional wars, including the five that India has fought, the term “being at war” connotes a formal announcement of hostilities, mobilization of forces, strident posturing and military strikes, armies attacking on pre-determined thrust lines, capturing key towns and destroying assets. At some stage, the nuclear option would come into play. To avoid escalation, world powers would mediate and hopefully succeed. That is the set-piece sequence in a conventional war.
Unfortunately, set-piece battles are being rapidly replaced by irregular styles of waging war, where the frontlines are interspersed and civilians are as much in the combat zone as soldiers. In fact, in many conflicts civilians are no longer collateral damage—they are the intended target. Also, conventional and irregular war, such as terrorism and insurgency, are not mutually exclusive. Often, a state uses both for improved leverage.
Ironically, this passive war is more insidious. Despite the devastation caused, conventional conflicts have a silver lining. All the wars that India has fought have been relatively short and localized and the general population was largely insulated from direct physical damage. Also, conventional war follows a predictable trajectory of build-up, preparatory strikes, a conflict stage and an end.
Irregular instruments of hostilities, such as insurgency and terrorism, are far more menacing because of their very nature. Instigators of this format can select the ground of their own choosing, deep inside the state. The battle can be fought from within and outside with no clear demarcations between opposing forces.
The second feature of irregular wars is that they focus largely on civilian targets. Civilians are usually far more at risk than security forces, especially as they get caught in the crossfire of the state and the terrorists. Development suffers, opportunities dry up and penury follows. Lack of alternatives fuels turbulence, and the vicious cycle goes on.
The very nature of terrorism puts security forces on the defensive, because terrorists can wrest the initiative more often. They can choose the time and place of the strike and vary the targets until security forces are spread thin or are exhausted. A clear lesson emerging is that the general population has to be co-opted in this battle against terror. They cannot remain neutral and uninvolved. Usually, this participation has translated into sporadic awareness campaigns that are not enough. To enable a paradigm shift, we need to attack the critical lynchpin that terrorist organizations need to thrive.
Societies make rules for governance and apparatuses for enforcing those rules. But many of these rules are not followed or are poorly enforced. One of the primary reasons of suboptimal execution of good intent is rampant corruption. It would be naïve to suggest that this bane will disappear soon. But perhaps the battle against terrorism offers an opportunity to address the issue and leverage an extraordinary force multiplier.
Think about it this way. While crime may or may not pay, society pays a heavy price for crime. For instance, the next time you see a broken-down truck clogging traffic on a busy road, appreciate the heavy price paid collectively in terms of time lost or fuel burnt—because some corrupt person certified the vehicle road-worthy. The amount he made as a bribe is minuscule compared with the cost the rest of society has to bear. Similarly, we spend far more to protect our houses from being burgled than the actual gains of all burglaries put together. These examples can be extrapolated to every instance when the resources used to prevent crime far exceed the actual benefit to the criminals.
Sociologists explain that this human behaviour of focusing on personal gain above that of the community is because the individual feels distanced from the effect of his misdemeanour. So the food adulterator believes that his family will not consume the adulterated food or the corrupt building contractor does not feel he will be affected by the bad construction.
However, terrorism is a game changer. The randomness and unpredictability of attacks removes the ability of a corrupt or even an indifferent facilitator to ensure that his loved ones will not be victims of his greed. In a way, terrorist strikes are great levellers. Because unlike many other crimes its victims range from commoners to rulers, from the poorest to the richest. In short, there is no rule to remaining safe, except that all of us follow all the rules.
Terrorists cannot operate in a vacuum. They need targets, transport, logistics, bases, finance and communication. And because these components are leveraged from society, terrorists perforce have to rely on the apathy, indifference or outright corruption of various citizens to be able to operate.
So convincing all stakeholders that their diligence has a direct bearing on the battle against terrorism is the vital step to wresting back the initiative in this battle. For instance, when the country addresses a debilitating problem like, say, population explosion or HIV, it carries out elaborate and sustained public awareness campaigns. Much in the same light, terrorism too needs to find its mindshare with public interest groups, non-governmental organizations, companies and, of course, the government, with sustained awareness campaigns at the grass-roots level to recruit active citizen participation. To enable true public participation in the battle against terrorism, citizens must realize that facilitating a terrorist act is like being an accessory—not a bystander.
Raghu Raman is an expert and commentator on internal security. These are the author’s personal views.
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First Published: Wed, Mar 10 2010. 10 01 PM IST