The Social Virus of Terrorism

By Namit Arora | Nov 2008 | Comments

(A short article I wrote the day after terrorists struck Mumbai on 11/26/08. —Namit Arora)

In early 2006, I was on a train to Varanasi when my mother called. Muslim terrorists had struck Varanasi, she said, including its train station. Every news channel on TV was talking about it. She advised me to postpone the visit and get off earlier. Besides Usha, I had with me two American friends on their first trip to India, and I felt responsible for their safety. I had to act fast. What if Hindu-Muslim riots break out? The reality of the situation sunk in further when an NDTV reporter and her camera crew got on the train. With time to kill before Varanasi, she went around in the hyper-excited voice I had begun to associate with live reporters in India, quizzing passengers about their thoughts on the incident.

I persuaded my fellow travelers to continue. The terrorists had done their deed already; worst case, we could stay holed up in our hotel. We found a part of the Varanasi station cordoned off by the police. I could see blotches of red on the ground. The driver of the taxi we took into town had witnessed the explosions—flying body parts, screams, the ensuing melee. Our decision turned out to be a good one—the city remained calm and we moved around freely. I felt proud of my fellow citizens for their mature response to the situation.

TajHotel The term "social virus" is often used to describe modern terrorism of the kind that happened in Varanasi and yesterday in Mumbai (vs. terrorism that is rooted in well defined political/military struggles, such as for a disputed homeland). I think this descriptor is sensible. Like other social viruses, this one too afflicts the social body indiscriminately and arises out of ill-defined or unaddressable grievances.

The primary damage from the social virus of terrorism is not the loss of life (at least not yet).[*] The primary damage is the psychological horror (amplified by the commercial news media), which allows fear to pervade the social fabric, making room for demagogues and knee-jerk retaliations. The question now is: In an attempt to counteract this social virus, will the Indian social body overreact, making the virus more virulent and/or creating new pathologies? This may happen if it focuses mainly on suppressing the symptoms, not on treating the causes (true, not everyone agrees on the causes, but they obviously exist). Will it pursue this social virus at the expense of other social viruses and human priorities?

The pessimistic scenario is that the Hindu right-wing exploits this to their political advantage, shrinks the ranks of moderate Indians, beats down the "soft" liberal voices, and gains control of the central government next year. They will reduce civil liberties, institute more draconian police action, push the minorities into a corner and even radicalize more of them, causing communal riots and worse.

The optimistic scenario is that with Pakistan's visible cooperation, early progress is made towards bringing the people behind this attack to justice. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Hindus continue to distinguish between extremists and ordinary Muslims (as they did in Varanasi), reject the demagogues, and get on with life. What would help here is a stronger-than-ever and continued vocal denunciation of these acts from Muslim community leaders, and for more Muslims to be seen joining the fight against this social virus. The media will do well to seek out and air moderate voices and reduce coverage for extremist ones. To the extent the damage is psychological, the response too ought to be psychological.

* This statement will not comfort the grieving families caught in the crossfire, but to put the toll in perspective, a thousand times more die of TB than from terrorism in India each year, two hundred times more from road accidents, fifty times more from common murders, and ten times more in Kashmir. Yes, each criminal and random death is one too many, but the public and the media everywhere morbidly fixate on the spectacular aspect of terrorism deaths (non-stop "filmi drama" for many days), much as they do for plane crashes/hijackings.

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