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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Why the Mumbai Police Did Not Shoot

The Mumbai massacre will be dissected by all and sundry. But the facts that surprise a lot of people are the number of attackers, the scale of the attack and the death toll.

This terrorist attack is being called “India’s 9/11.” Like America’s 9/11, the attack was carried out by radical Islamists. It was also a strike at cultural symbols, and it was meant to inflict large numbers of deaths. By some accounts, the objective was 5000 dead.

While the 9/11 attacks resulted in 3000 dead and the Mumbai death toll is measured in the hundreds, what is surprising about Mumbai is the death toll in view of weapons used. Ten men with rifles and grenades rather than fuel laden jetliners inflicted hundreds of retail deaths in battles that raged for days and may well be the model for the next attack in the US.

Why did they succeed for so long in India? A reporter in the Mumbai train station reported that quite a number of armed police were present who made no effort to shoot the attackers. It’s worth examining the reasons why.

We don’t know why the police did not shoot at the terrorists, but there are only a few reasons why:

• Personal fear
• Legal consequences
• Cultural issues

The first one, personal fear, is a rational one. After all, if you are armed with a pistol and your adversary is armed with a rifle, you are at a severe disadvantage in a shootout at anything beyond point blank range. It takes a brave man to be willing to face a couple of terrorists who are shooting at anything that moves. Especially if you are not particularly well trained to respond to this kind of threat.

The second, legal consequences can be ascribed to an event of just a month ago when police in Mumbai shot and killed a man who had shot up a bus. This resulted in condemnation by high government officials of the Mumbai police for their actions.

There are also cultural issues against taking a life in a country where cows are still sacred and pacifism is widely admired and practiced. Hinduism is the predominant religion in India and while it does not specifically reject wars against injustice, it does have a broad streak of fatalism and pacifism.

So why did the police in the Mumbai train station not open fire? All three factors were probably at work. America has the cowboy as its icon – the John Wayne figure – India has Mahatma Gandhi who threw off the British yoke via non-violent resistance. But Gandhi also recommended pacifism in the face of the Hitler’s aggression.

How different then would I expect the response to be if the Islamofacists try a Mumbai in the US? Two of the three factors would apply here, but in somewhat different order.

I would expect terrorists to meet both civilian and police resistance. More Americans are armed than Indians and civilians have been known to defend themselves and their neighbors from armed attacks.

I would expect the police to be cautious about returning fire for fear of legal repercussions of injuring civilians, but our cultural imperatives would result in more “heroic” behavior.

As a sidelight it is interesting that Western culture has created something that may almost be referred to as a “Genteel War.” I have just finished reading a book about Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. In those wars the Romans killed literally hundreds of thousands of their enemies and sold tens of thousands into slavery. After the end of one battle, in a demonstration of determination, Caesar ordered his troops to cut off the hands of 4000 men who had surrendered; an object lesson that ended resistance to Roman rule.

A little over 50 years ago we conducted a war of total destruction, shelling towns and villages, killing civilians in population centers, firebombing Dresden and utterly destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the end millions were dead, an entire continent lay in ruins, the Russian army was systematically raping the German women and the survivors were starving.

Fast forward to today and we have a war in Iraq during which we lost about 4200 troops killed and the Iraqis lost 5 – 6000 troops killed and by some estimates 50 – 60,000 civilian deaths from all causes. As wars go, this was virtually bloodless. More people were killed in single battles during our Civil War than during the entire Iraq war.
Most of the civilian casualties appear to have been inflicted by the terrorists that set off bombs following the defeat of the Iraqi army. Meanwhile, to show we mean well, we are desperately trying to rebuild the infrastructure of the country which we invaded a few years ago and befriending those who just months before were trying to kill our soldiers, while prosecuting and imprisoning guards who took pictures of naked prisoners in embarrassing positions.

The results of all these attempts to fight a "kinder, gentler war" while trying to prevent another 9/11? Members of the legal profession are shunning a member of the Bush administration who determined that some non-lethal and non-permanent stresses could be used during prisoner interrogation, horrifying the armchair generals who insist that anything beyond gentle persuasion is –by definition – torture.

These same people want to extend the status of legal combatants to people who do not wear uniforms so that they can blend in to the civilian population. A status that is specifically counter to the reasons why the rules of lawful combatants were written: the protection of civilians.

At some point the memory of John Wayne will be erased from the American psyche and we will react like the Mumbai police, waiting until the terrorists run out of ammunition. But not quite yet.
There are some who are calling for understanding that we are facing an enemy that really does not operate according to the rules.
...the war on terror’s doctrine must change. The old-time suicide bombers mostly operated alone or in small groups, in order to prove their power and hurt the enemy as much as is possible. Yet their time has passed.

Today, we see the emergence of a dark, new, and different army, with new branches that include all the components of a military, yet still utilize the terror doctrine. The advantage of terrorist armies is first and foremost the fact they are not subjected to any law or international convention. They do not face any pressure and they are not accountable to anyone.

They tie the hands of the responding force, which is the only side subjected to conventions pertaining to human rights, war captives, and the targeting of civilians.

Every terror event makes it increasingly clear that the danger to the stability of societies and regimes is much greater than we thought. The Mumbai events must serve as a turning point in the way we address terror armies. This is no longer a conventional war. The war codes formulated in the wake of World War II are no longer relevant. Instead, an international anti-terror force must be created; this force must be specialized, it must study the new threat, and it must be able to provide an immediate response by forces trained especially to that end.


Anonymous said...

I would feel more secure with Jack Bauer carrying a pistol, than the police protecting the former Bombay with submachine guns.

(Do you think the producers were betting on Hillary?)

Anonymous said...

In the vast concentration of humanity that is Mumbai, in spite of the terrorists efforts, more people were born, conceived during those four days than lost their lives. Truly, this is Mumbai's strength. The rest is noise.

Anonymous said...

You have got to be kidding.