Now that the Commonwealth Games are behind us, it is perhaps time to introspect about an aspect that had been of major concern for the government, for participating nations in the Games and for every Indian: security. This, undoubtedly, is among the key challenges in an event of this magnitude anywhere in the world. International sporting events are high-value targets for terrorist organizations, for whom disrupting such an event offers a double advantage—of hurting the country and having the world see it live while they are doing it.
Terrorism, after all, is theatre. Terrorists hope for media presence at high-visibility targets to send shock waves of hysteria surging far beyond the initial damages. The terrorist group Black September became a household name after the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, just as did Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Evidence suggests that the growth of global terrorism has had a strong correlation with proliferation of media. A 26/11 kind of attack would have had less impact if it wasn’t being beamed live into millions of homes. Terrorists, and hijackers specifically, ask for access to media as part of their demands for the same reason.
Photo: Ankit Agrawal/Mint
High-visibility attacks put terrorists on the world map and serve as a rallying call to potential supporters and recruits. For the bad guys as well, opportunities such as the Commonwealth Games come along only once in several years—so they need to pull out all stops to exploit it strategically.
Terrorists bomb buildings and blow up school buses or carry out large-scale, seemingly arbitrary slaughter with three specific objectives. First, undermine the government and proclaim the state’s inability to protect its citizenry. Second, coerce a polity several times their own size and strength. Countries that withdraw from global coalitions, or organizations that withdraw from developmental activities in disturbed areas after terrorist attacks, prove that terrorism is an effective tool in “persuading” governments and organizations to reconsider their involvement or alignments.
But the most dangerous reason terrorists carry out attacks—especially ruthless ones like 26/11—is to make the state overreact. The state is a representation of human beings and humans have an irrational tendency to ascribe more value to an activity that assaults their senses repeatedly. Which is what the media does after every terrorist attack. (By the way, this phenomenon is also the reason why the same advertisement is played several times on TV.)
At times the media—whose core business is storytelling (and core constraint is capturing fleeting mind share)—inadvertently assists in sensationalizing terrorists, almost conferring a Che Guevara-type aura around what is essentially a criminal activity. Storylines of how a handful of gunmen kept an entire country at ransom are played incessantly, little realizing that it is precisely these continuous telecasts that assist in terrorists holding the country to ransom. This is not to suggest that the media should refrain from its job of reporting. But we should be cognizant of the fact that the power of the media can exacerbate a situation. The unfortunate part: The media drums up its critique only when terrorists succeed at their attack, but almost always ignores the “news” when no attack is allowed to succeed.
This brings me back to the point about the incident-free Commonwealth Games. Think about the challenges of building a security apparatus that involves thousands of security personnel, drawn in from various different agencies and organizations, many of whom were brought in from remote parts of the country, several arriving, perhaps, for the first time into the capital. Coordinating a common training strategy for them with emergency responses and drills for several possible eventualities, and bringing them all under a unified command is no mean feat. Thousands of man-hours went into studying possible avenues of attack and neutralizing them, millions of sq. ft were checked physically, and hundreds of thousands of spectators had to be frisked and watched.
Meanwhile, security agencies would have had to step up their levels of alertness months in advance, checking out all possible leads and rechecking every suspicious behaviour. Special Forces would have spent months studying every venue and route, and high-threat areas such as metros, major markets and airports. And all this would need to happen as unobtrusively as possible.
There is no doubt that there is a certain element of luck in virtually every security plan, design and execution. But, by definition, luck favours the terrorists because they need to get lucky just once while security forces need to be lucky through the entire security lifecycle. Designing and executing this complex security apparatus—involving dozens of venues, scores of potential targets, millions of general populace in the face of myriad threat—is creditable. We should be just as proud of it as our rich haul of medals.
Unfortunately, beyond a few anecdotal human-interest stories, the media completely overlooked this superb orchestration and missed an opportunity to positively reinforce India’s preparedness and capability to combat terror.
One of the security personnel described the thrill of being in the centre of the Commonwealth Games while he was deployed in the closing ceremony. Except that he had his back to the celebrations and missed it completely because he was watching the crowds. That was the biggest byte the media could offer from this perspective. I think there were some medals well deserved here as well.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.
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