Two weeks ago, Mumbai and the country resonated with yet another terror attack. Thirty-one months after 26/11, explosions killed and maimed people and changed the lives of hundreds—forever.

My sense is that apart from the victims and their families, the rest of India will pick up the threads where we left them 31 months ago and move on. And without being judgemental,?that?is also a response to terrorism. But the problem is that we have started equating “explosions" and “bombs" as the only qualifiers of terrorism and view the intermediate period as somehow being “terror-free".

It is time to step back and examine just exactly what terrorism is.

When two (or more) countries, communities, ethnicities or even individuals contest for the same resources in a hostile manner, there is conflict. These resources could be material such as land, water, oil, access to ports, or abstract ideas such as ideology and beliefs. However, the fundamental driver of conflict is depleting resources with increasing contenders. All war is essentially to control or obtain resources for own communities. Whenever there is war, there will be at least two sides, and usually one will be weaker in some sphere or the other.

Photo: AP

Terrorism is the favoured weapon of the numerically smaller for the same reasons. The strategic objective of terror is “disproportionate compellence". That is, a smaller side is able to compel a much larger opponent to expend disproportionate resources and mindshare. And terror as a tool is able to achieve this objective because it is a psychological weapon. Terror is not about absolute loss. It is about the ability to cause that loss in a completely arbitrary manner even if that is much lesser in magnitude.

For instance, India ranks second in the world for natural disasters. India leads the world with 220 snakebite deaths every day. Just two weeks ago we lost 67 lives in a train accident, three times the fatalities of the Mumbai bombing. Yet, Mumbai dominates our mindshare. That’s the power of terror. Terror isn’t about removed statistical logic, it is about personal emotional panic.

Terror scares us. The grave danger is that it scares us in continuity. On 22 May last year, an Indian Airlines plane crashed in Mangalore killing over 200 people. Within days, flights were back to normal traffic. You probably flew in a plane in the aftermath without really worrying about it. We have a similar attitude towards a train accident. Because those are random, seemingly uncontrollable instances. But a terror strike evokes a very different response because of a “controlled by someone else" feel to it. A hijacker holding hostages creates an eerie provocation deep within us. That causes us to respond far in excess of the resources spent by the terrorists. That compelled resource drain is the true objective of terror.

When you buy a coffee in a five star hotel, you also pay for the enhanced security apparatus that has been implemented post-26/11. That is perpetual terror. Millions of our educated and trained youth stand guard with rifles in what is an economically unproductive activity. That is terror.

When I see four-year-old children raising their arms to be frisked while entering a mall, I see the success of terror every day. Terror has the potential to change our social psyche perpetually because it is death by design. So the real?key?to?countering terror lies in addressing the psychological impact of terror. And that has to be done by addressing the issue across society in a participative and sustained manner.

As an analogy, treating an accident victim requires urgent trauma therapy, but improving a society’s health requires structural developments in areas such as education, hygiene, nutrition, vaccinations, investing in medical colleges and hospitals etc. Long-term different tracks that need to work in synchronized ratios. By the same logic, countering terror also requires many long-term tracks spreading across society’s different structures to make any meaningful progress. And this is where our focus should be during the periods between attacks. Unfortunately, we focus on the trauma therapy and leave it at that.

Here is an old adage that has served combat leaders well. The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war. The thing is we are already at war. And now might be the time to roll up our sleeves and work up a little sweat—rather than just shedding tears of angst.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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