In one of the few original sections of his 1500-page cut-and-paste internet confession, Anders Breivik, the alleged perpetrator of the recent attacks in Norway makes this prediction:
“Not only will all my friends and family detest me and call me a monster; the united global multiculturalist media will have their hands full figuring out multiple ways to character assassinate, vilify and demonize.”
I’d say he’s being a little oversensitive.
This is a man who, for 9 years apparently lived a double life, while plotting to execute a grotesquely theatrical plan to kill as many innocents as he possibly could – including a bunch of picnicking kids in hunter-executioner style – simply in order to “market” his political views… and we’re to believe that all the while he was worried about being misunderstood?
Breivik’s lawyer has made an early plea for insanity, specifically requesting that Japanese experts be brought in to testify as they are well-versed in “the idea and values of honour.” He should instead instruct his client to fall on his sword.
The Norwegians are obviously in collective shock at Breivik’s premeditated display of pure evil. They cannot fathom how this “monster” could be one of their own. Without a precedent on which to base their emotional response to such a reprehensible tragedy, they scour their national psyche searching for an understanding of a sociopathy they had thought only to exist in the world of Scandinavian crime fiction. They’ve found that they don’t even have a penalty in their legal canon to befit a crime of this magnitude. Even their newspapers have struggled to label the act, and have fallen far short, resorting to describing Breivik’s actions as “Far Right Christian Extremism”,.
The rest of the “united global multiculturalist media” meanwhile, are making a spectacle of the entire affair in ways that Breivik, with his penchant for self-aggrandizing play-acting, could only have envisioned in his wildest dreams.
But, unlike the self-indulgent tenor of his rambling confession, the consensus that the world is correctly heading towards is that Breivik is nothing more than a vile terrorist and a murderer.
Changing the script
Despite his pretensions at being a political martyr, the authorities have chosen to focus on Breivik’s actions, which are patently criminal. Given that he was not at war with the Norwegian state, or even ordained by the Vatican to embark on his so-called Christian crusade, his deadly assault has been found to have no moral or political legitimacy whatsoever. And, despite the horrific extent of his crimes, it would be no mean insult to Breivik to call them not just unwarranted, but also unoriginal.
In fact, his choice of tactics borrows directly from the playbook of the very Islamic radicals he sees as his enemy.
Al Qaeda, although infamous for its dramatic attacks against the West, was born as an extension of radical Wahhabism and puts its primary focus on intimidating moderate Muslims across the Middle East into submitting to its conservative agenda. The Taliban in Afghanistan and various radical Islamic groups in Pakistan have each unleashed their own domestic reign of terror not just in order to ensure a return to traditional ideology but specifically to gain political ascendancy.
For all his delusions of grandeur, Breivik’s hysterical hatred of the Norwegian Labour Party’s policies and his attack against innocent non-Muslims (which he claims, with unintentional irony, was supposedly in order to save them from Islamization) most resembles the behavior of the anti-abortion agitators and white supremacist militia groups that are so numerous in the US, and have have time and again punished opposition to their extreme right wing agendas through similar tactics of bombing and assassination.
Fast on the heels of the attack, Fox News, the unofficial media representative for the Far Right Christian Extremists of the US, aired hours of programming featuring [usually growling] talking heads in sober denial of Breivik’s connection to even the most far-flung fringe sentiments within their community – a step they have never taken in the case of the anti-abortion lobby, which borrows its deadly pro-life fervor directly from the Catholic church. The rabidly violent and racist English Defense League, whose ideology Breivik maintains to worship, issued a statement distancing itself from his methods. Its leader claims he had earlier refused to accept a Facebook friend request from Breivik. And a day after its editors rushed to blame Muslim terrorists for what turned out to be the actions of a blond, blue-eyed European nationalist, the Islam-baiting Wall Street Journal even went so far as to blur the religious debate in an op-ed piece concluding that Breivik was simply “evil incarnate”.
With the world closing ranks in universal condemnation, it is surprising that none of the Norwegian anti-immigrant organizations Breivik is known to have supported have uttered a word reproaching his actions. They would do well to speak up against him
And so, despite the early confusion, and by taking control of the fallout with typical Nordic efficiency it seems that the government in Oslo has defused Breivik’s twisted plan of inciting a campaign of escalating sectarian violence, which he had hoped would lead to an apocalyptic holy war, and, perhaps after the debris had settled, cataclysmic social change.
If anything, it has served to put the Europeans on notice to address the rifts in their society and has succeeded in leeching some of the legitimacy away from the argument of their radicals.
As for Breivik, we can expect him to rot in prison, out of public view until the case is able to take on a sober pitch… and until the Norwegians are able to formulate a new law for dealing with monsters.
Are there any lessons that terrorism’s latest victim can teach an old warhorse like Bombay?
There are a few I can think of.
The first is that we must resurrect our collective sense of outrage.
Having cowered under terrorism’s dark shadow for decades, our city’s psyche now rests despondently at the opposite end of the spectrum of sorrow from that demonstrated by the wide-eyed, shell-shocked Norwegians who lost their innocence somewhere in the Utoya woods.
Like a boxer who has taken one too many hits and become inured to pain, Bombay’s citizenry seem to have fallen into a state of cynical, defeated acceptance of the fact that their city is a soft target, a soap box for violent displays of the grievances of the disenfranchised, who do not have the means or the courage to wage a conventional war nor the wits to win a logical argument against the state.
Government officials unhelpfully suggest that, outside of a police state, terror groups will always have the impunity to strike at random. They add that most of the more discriminating tools of counterterrorism like infiltration, intelligence gathering and selective detention need to be kept away from the public eye in order to be effective. Therefore, behind the guise of disinformation, they do nothing. Opposition minister Eknath Khadse summed up this policy admirably when he told the state assembly that Bombay’s best hope for security seemed to be “bhagwan bharose”.
Apart from the limitless grief of the victims and their families, who cry out in anguish, the rest of us are close to a state of terror fatigue.
We must not accept this callous and dehumanized condition. By surrendering our very souls to the many monsters operating within our midst, we will have allowed them to win, regardless of whatever it is they actually want as their ultimate prize in their unyielding war of attrition.
There is always hope.
An unanticipated side effect of a large-scale urban terrorist attack is that it unites the target population in a collective sense of shared destiny. Although uneven social mobility is moving us apart in too many ways, we are all equal victims of terror because, quite plainly, it could just as easily have been any of us. This is a very real but unexplored facet of the much-maligned “spirit of Bombay”, which gets washed away whenever we clean up the crime scene and move on with our singularly self-involved lives.
Just as the deeply divided population of Iraq has begun to come together to reject Al Qaeda’s bullying, fed-up with the relentless and indiscriminate brutality it has been fed daily, and just as the Norwegians, and even more recently, the civil-riot-hit British have stood up for the fundamentals which allow them to be an inclusive society, we too can embrace the equal and opposite reaction of our humanity and use it as a weapon against those that aim to destroy and bury it.
We have rallied together against telemarketers, alcohol prohibitionists, the pothole mafia and others who challenge our way of life in trivial ways; it is a pity that we cannot hold the line once more when it comes to our very lives.
It is truly pathetic that we have not been able to install a single public, non-political, permanent, and meaningful symbol to commemorate our collective stand against the barbarism of terror. Where is our memorial? What is our war cry? Why do we break rank so easily?
The problem resides in the existential nature of the threat and its agents.
Norway has an identifiable adversary with a well-defined set of priorities which can be confronted and addressed. With the latest attacks in Bombay, we’ve even lost sight of who could be responsible – Islamic or Hindu terrorists, state or local actors, opportunists or zealots. And, with no one coming forward to claim the act and therefore with no end game in sight, all that we’re left with is a grim sense of inevitability that someone will strike again. And soon.
A punch on the nose produces blood and tears, but also adrenalin. We all feel the same outrage and taste the raw desire for vengeance. But, without an outlet we allow these visceral feelings to dissipate, and as is inevitable in our times of opportunism, they get hijacked by grandstanders, who choose to manipulate our wrath for their own gain.
The second thing to do, then, is to find a means of channeling our anger effectively towards our enemies.
Since 26/11 we’ve been told to get used to a new trend of terror by remote control, where every new lash in the regimen of the “thousand cuts” by which we are meant to bleed to death is being carried out not by indoctrinated freedom fighters seeking to incite a revolution, but by an assembly line of petty criminals with no definitive political inclinations and who are able to take human life with pure transactional detachment. The handlers at Pakistan’s ISI who are the architects of this strategy realize that they can be freed from moral and legal retribution by farming out their war of attrition with the Indian government to an endless string of angry young men, all of whom are so frustrated with being marginalized that they are more than willing to take up arms, even though by doing so all that they manage to do is give up their lives for what is patently specious political grandstanding.
So we have our own cynical, mutated and many-times-more elusive version of “the monster”.
An agent driven to desperation not by extreme loneliness and a misguided sense of self, like Breivik was, nor by a zealous sense of entitlement, like scores of religious fundamentalists have been throughout History, but rather by banal financial considerations.
Ajmal Kasab languishes in a Bombay jail, waiting for karma to percolate through the Indian justice system and unleash itself upon him. The true tragedy [and the truly terrifying reality] isn’t that he was merely a pawn in the control of a malevolent master, who will get away without being punished. Or that, like Breivik, he lost sight of his humanity. It is that there are countless others like him deeply motivated to do exactly what he did, all without an ounce of conviction.
While it is a challenge to keep our sights trained on these nebulous, shape-shifting antagonists, and while we must pay heed to the bedevilling poverty which drives them to such desperation, we must also inflict much more damage with the ones we do apprehend.
Kasab and every single member of his growing ilk must be unambiguously judged on the gravity of their actions, and if indeed they are found to be enemies of humanity they must be made examples of by being cast out into whatever hell they each believe in. Or the tide of recruitment will never cease.
This cannot be limited to the legal process.
The system of justice will rightfully provide for moral balancing and perhaps even a sense of vengeance but, in order to create a real cautionary tale, we must exemplify that retribution and place it squarely in the public imagination, where the terrorist myth gets its power.
It is on these front lines that our effort against terrorism is frustrated from the start by semantics.
The very use of the word “terrorist” is self-fulfilling in that it signals someone to be feared, and conversely a role of power to be aspired to. It has become a nasty euphemism which gives our adversaries an unnatural psychological advantage.
But these villains are not extremists, warriors, martyrs, freedom fighters or members of any such awe-inspiring denomination. They do not possess a dauntless spirit, noble strength or heroic resolve. They’re bad human beings, plain and simple. And by letting them circulate their own propaganda and style their own legend, we allow them to literally get away with murder.
Worriers vs warriors
The time has come to replace the common noun “terrorist” and the vocation “terrorism” with something that better befits the crime.
“Nihilist” may be more accurate, because it hints directly to how all of these groups aim to subvert our value systems and gain ascendancy, but it is too arcane and weak a term to elicit the emotional response we require to deal with them effectively.
“Mass-murderer” works for me.
Although there is the argument that the use of so vague a prosaism will blunt our ability to respond in a concentrated fashion – just as the “war against terror” was not as effective a rallying call as perhaps a “war against [some proper noun]”, like a nation or a better defined enemy, who could be defeated.
Political “extremists” in the US caused much damage to the world with their recent act of holding the economy hostage, causing arguably greater long-term suffering than the actions of all the religious “extremists” who chose to act this year, but the law does not allow us to deal with them in the same manner as we would other political “extremists” like Breivik, who subscribes to their elitism, nor religious “extremists” like Al Qaeda, from whom he borrows his tactics. By that logic, grouping “terrorists” with other “mass-murderers” may seem to weaken our focus and response.
I disagree, because I think that having a common response for all manner of mass-murderers directly addresses and delegitimizes the terrorist’s choice of tactics and debases terrorism’s supposedly lofty goals.
We probably should go further.
Taking a cue from the Scandinavian crime authors who have had a field day painting the villainy of these lunatics, we could apply the many archetypes of modern-day evil to reveal their true depravity.
For instance, the one thing that does bind all these criminals together is their opportunism and cowardice. They almost always act covertly, without the fear of being discovered, caught, or brought to justice for their despicable crimes. Meanwhile, we allow card-carrying members of self-sanctioned political parties to provide these people logistical and philosophical support freely under the guise of democracy. Their abuse of our decency is total, so that, when they are cornered, they simply create another chimera behind which they can hide. Even suicide bombers are told that they will get amnesty in an afterlife paradise, with the bounty of 40 virgins for company.
Why not recognize these aberrations of character and add the modifiers “cowardly”, “inhuman”, “unworthy”, “hate-filled” or even something more base and effective. Something local and ownable. Call them “chutiyas”. Exchange an expletive response for a profane act. It seems more than fair.
Sample these reframed headlines, which could easily piggyback on the tabloid imperatives of our local press:
Cowardly Mass Murderers Kill Defenseless Citizens.
Low-lives Hide Behind Children and Shoot at Police.
Rats Place Bombs in Crowded Train and Scurry Away into their Gutter Holes.
A Known Chutiya Finally Caught and Brought to Justice
This kind of demystification will reveal the “monsters” for what they are. It will encourage ordinary citizens to qualify their fear, and perhaps even reverse it by giving it a vocabulary to confront the terrorists, inform on them, mark their houses, shame their families. At the same time, it will impose a real psychic cost on these reckless agents and make them think twice about choosing the glamour of chaos and anarchy over the penury of living as citizens of an organized society.
This is not a frivolous suggestion – Note how the perniciously well-entrenched Ku Klux Klan went into long-term decline in the late 40s after a folklorist gave details of its esoteric code book and rituals to the writers of a fictional radio show featuring Superman. The popularity of the show allowed the Klan’s rubric to be widely mimicked. It soon passed around like wildfire in schoolyard games. Demystified and ridiculed by the rhymes of children, the once-dreaded organization soon lost its charisma and, with it, most of its popular support.
While I don’t suggest handing over the jihadi argot to our kids for poetry class, I would be happy to see my son’s school run a drawing contest for a super hero who goes out and makes a mess of the terror nexus. Or to have him and his friends play Pin the Tail on Osama’s Ass at the next available birthday party. Think about how, with the help of some imaginative marketing, we’ve magically turned our often invertebrate cricket players into the Warriors, SuperKings and Challengers of the IPL. We could flip this trope on its head and rebrand the Al Qaeda Chickens, or the Lashkar e Toiba e Toiba. We could gratefully give SIMI the gift of a mascot: an ageless actress dressed unimpeachably in white with a beatific botox smile and a satanic alter ego which has a penchant for grabbing credit for the very operation of the universe.
The media must definitely help. With just a fraction of the energy and space they commit to sensationalizing the suffering caused by these base men, they can very effectively debunk the myth of their monstrousness. Destruction and bad news have an unavoidable resonance, but so do retribution, contrition and the story of justice that is well served.
Breivik’s father said he wishes his son had died before shaming his family. That headline never made it to the cover page of CNN.
Kasab cried like a baby at his court hearing. I’d love to see that on an endless loop on India TV.
And while we’re all waiting for the Youtube release of Osama Bin Laden’s favorite wife’s supposed confession detailing the tawdry sexual escapades they enjoyed together in his kink-filled country boudoir, unfortunately, it seems that this last wish may not transpire because the Americans, who are the masters of the universe of brand warfare and who understand the power of even suggesting that they have this hot footage, recently signaled an interesting switch in tactics in their battle for perceptual ascendancy over their terrorist enemies.
I’ve often wondered when the US’ psyops machine would trump the genius innovation of the Most Wanted Iraqi playing cards they released in 2003, which, as in the case of the KKK code-book leak, made a popular parlour game [and a very effective broadcast tool] out of their campaign against Saddam and his minions.
They just went one better.
The uncharacteristic reserve with which they made Osama’s death a quiet and confident footnote in their war against terror put potency back into their campaign in a way that a clinical nuclear strike to take out the Top-10 Most Wanted could not. It was even better than my suggestion – of letting Osama be raped to death by wild animals to debunk the “virgins in paradise” theory. Osama’s anonymous burial at sea, which denied the whole host of his supporters a palpable opportunity to grieve, pontificate and retaliate, showed the efficiency and resolve of a leader. With this move, the American campaign against terror [maybe they will also step away from the unhelpful bombast of calling it a war] gained a moral advantage it hasn’t enjoyed for a long time.
I call this move uncharacteristic [but certainly welcome] because it’s no secret that the US has also handicapped itself and indeed the entire free world from the very beginning of its campaign, thanks to the machinations of vested interests in its political class and in the military-industrial complex, who have fostered a false sense of insecurity in order to profit from the resulting climate of fear.
My third prescription, one that mirrors this newfound restraint from the Americans, is the hardest to follow, and it perhaps contradicts the first two: It is to do nothing.
The outspoken US Senator and one-time presidential nominee John McCain struck a dissonant chord with his countrymen when, in a 2004 book titled Why Courage Matters: The Way to a Braver Life he beseeched terror-obsessed Americans to ‘‘Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It’s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. . . Suck it up, for crying out loud. You’re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you’re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That’s not a life worth living, is it?’
McCain was responding to the institutionalized fear that had taken control of public life and foreign policy in the US, and had given birth to a mega-billion dollar bonanza for counterterrorism operations, apart from a hawkish boost for the American war machine… which only today is being seen as hugely wasteful and even counterproductive.
It is important to countenance that he was suggesting that the American public do nothing out of the ordinary in response to the terrorist threat.
In getting back to business as usual, they could start to button down the widespread epidemic of hysteria, which had been part of Al Qaeda’s strategy all along, namely to force a public outcry in the US which would provoke an unequal militaristic response from the government, which would not only place a huge human, financial and psychic toll on the country, but would also radicalize fence-sitting Muslims across the world and unite them by making them feel persecuted by the heavy-handed retaliation of the West.
These are the very circumstances and therefore the very prescription that holds true for India as well, but the mealy-mouthed manner in which our government chooses to communicate it makes the strategy sound like a weak compromise and a concession to the terrorists.
We have thus far been fortunate that we do not have a well-organised, homegrown terror industry [arms contractors, security analysts, duct tape salesmen, etc] to fan the flames, although the rapacious Fourth Estate have always reaped the benefit of amplifying the impact of tragedy. We also have our fair share of right-wing nut jobs and fundamentalist splinter groups, all of whom are learning to manipulate the system in order to push their agendas.
While we should be offering kudos to our government for resisting the popular but ruinous urge to bomb Pakistan, instead we complain about our dysfunctionality. We fret about the sensitivity being shown to marginalized communities, while we know that the terrorists would love to have us target them.
Worst of all, we act ashamed of our honest and abundant resuscitative energy, which compels us to mark our losses and move on, even though we admit that the only option would be to surrender to despair and thus renounce our way of life.
I say it’s time to stand up for the spirit of Bombay.
We should immediately focus on building muscle memory around our resilience and our ability to boomerang back from tragedy. To do anything less would be to accept the hideous cynicism of men like Breivik.
We must grab back ownership of our public image and issue our own heartfelt statement of the fact that fortitude and apathy are two very separate responses. The best defense of our way of life would be to continue to live it with greater passion and investment.
We will find ready inspiration from the proponents of “Oslove”, the symbolic, mass-scale public mantra being chanted to guide Norway away from fear-mongering and a reckless response and back onto the path of its enlightened social system. Breivik sought to introduce masses of Norwegians to Islamophobia, but he only encouraged them to use the felled wood of the Utoya forest to build a strong defense against terrorphobia instead. We have plenty of wood and mettle in Bombay to build our own terroresistance.
McCain might have added in his plainspeak that the golden hours of the US’ campaign against terror were not witnessed in any act of reprisal but in the display of resourcefulness and mutual concern which followed the tragedies of 9/11 and beyond, where humanity was truly seen to triumph over evil. We’ve seen that kind of solidarity in Bombay time and again in our response to disaster, and it is the only inoculation we need against terror.
If we can begin to recognize terrorism [or nihilism or chutiyapanti] for what it truly is — an acceptable risk of staying the path and adhering to the values of a modern society, then we will have won without having to fire a single shot.
The choreographers of terror are obviously worried about us not worrying about them. They have stepped up the frequency of their attacks, but, in doing so they are pushing us away from paralyzing fear and closer towards this counterintuitive and effective learned response to their provocations.
Breivik’s 1500 pages of drivel and my own verbose offer of a rant for a rant are nowhere as compelling as these three little words:
Lage raho, Bombay