First, I hope you're okay, as is everyone you know.
Watching the coverage online for hours now, it strikes me that what we need more than anything else is the ability to respond to crises like this in an intelligent and organized way. With all these news reports of people having conversations with guests trapped inside the hotels coming in, I can't help wondering why no one seems to have thought of blocking communication in and out of the attack sites. If guests hiding in their rooms can call people on the outside, then presumably so can the attackers, which means they have both ready access to all information being publicly broadcast and the ability to coordinate with their fellow criminals in and around the city. It also means they have an unparalleled ability to spread disinformation (how do we know, for instance, that some of the reports coming in are not from the terrorists themselves?). I have to think this is a bad idea.
It's a particularly bad idea because it seems to me that most media channels are too busy trying to sensationalize the news to bother thinking through the consequences of what they're saying. It's not just that much of the coverage seems to be designed to amplify the general hysteria and panic, it's also that watching journalists describe what the police are doing or report on who is still trapped inside the hotels, I find myself wondering whether anyone's considered that at least some of that information might be helping the attackers.
Look, criminal acts like today's attacks are not going to go away. No matter what party is in power (and today's events probably made it more likely that will be the BJP - a pity), no matter how many civil liberties we suspend or how close to a police state we move, no matter how many arbitrary security procedures we put in place, this will happen again. What we can, and should, do is be better prepared for the next time it happens, so we can respond to it intelligently, instead of adopting what, from my admittedly distant perspective, looks suspiciously like the headless chicken approach.
Given all the comments and incoming links to this post, I wanted to clarify that the primary point of this post was NOT to heap blame on the media. The key takeaway from the events of the last 24 hours for me is the desperate need to have better, more comprehensive plans, procedures and protocols to invoke in emergencies like this.
It would be nice, of course, if the media were to behave more responsibly. And it would be wonderful if some dynamic, hyper-competent leader were to take charge of the law enforcement response, thinking through all the angles in real-time. But expecting that either will automatically happen is unreasonable. Which is why we need to be better prepared for such eventualities in the future.
Look, television reporters have their own pressures and incentives. With the multiplicity of channels covering these events, responsibility is necessarily diffuse, and voluntary restraint would require a level of disinterested collaboration that is always going to be fragile. Even if n-1 channels self-censored, there would always be the 1 channel that would broadcast sensitive information just to get its ratings up. This doesn't excuse the media's behavior, doesn't make them less responsible for any and all negative consequences of their reporting; but it does mean that the media response we're seeing is predictable and unsurprising, and should have been planned for in advance.
By the same token, it's not surprising that spontaneous leadership in a crisis like this one is poor and spotty. You can't seriously expect someone caught up in the rush of events, overwhelmed by both information and emotion, to think of everything (or even of most things). Nor is it easy to actually implement a communication shut down unless there's a previously defined protocol to do so. To take just one example, assuming whoever's in charge of the government response realized that they need to black out all cellphone communication in the affected area. How would he go about doing that?
And it's not simply a question of whether live feeds have finally been disabled, or television input to the hotel eventually been cut. It's not even really a question of how much the information given out by the media helped the attackers this time around. The real question - to me, at least - is: if the government needed to clamp down on the media and cut communication channels in an emergency, could it do so quickly, efficiently and comprehensively? The answer, based on what we're currently seeing, is a frightening no. That's a vulnerability that future terrorist groups - groups far more sophisticated in their manipulation of information than the ones currently attacking Mumbai - could exploit to devastating advantage.
The point is - it would be a pity if our response to today's events was limited to a lot of hand-wringing about how the media are a bunch of sensation-addicted scavengers, or a lot of poorly informed speculation about the motives and backgrounds of the attackers (it doesn't really matter, does it? Today it's one cause, tomorrow it'll be another; terrorism is not a novel phenomenon, it's a standard manifestation of socio-political unrest). The questions we really need to be asking are: what can we do to be better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks like this one? How have other countries (Israel springs to mind) prepared for such situations? What can we learn from them? For that to happen, though, we're going to need to look carefully and objectively at today's response and study what we could have done differently, and do so without pointing fingers or getting angry or trying to ascribe blame. Because you can be certain that somewhere out there there's a group of criminals who are doing exactly that in preparation for their next assault.
Of all the idiotic nonsense to come out of the last 24 hours, all this talk about this attack being 'India's 9/11' has to come pretty much on top of the list. What does that mean anyway? If we absolutely have to compare these attacks to something else, surely a more appropriate comparison would be the FLN attacks in Algeria (combination shootings / bombings targeted at popular sites in affluent neighborhoods with a high proportion of foreigners) or the Munich attack (armed assailants attack a high visibility complex, take foreigners hostage) rather than 9/11?
Which is not to suggest that today's attack has anything to do with Black September or that the Deccan Mujahideen have anything in common with the Algerian Freedom movement, but rather that drawing random and inexplicable parallels between one act of terrorism and another is a futile and ridiculous exercise, especially when it's done purely for the sake of a sound-bite. Every major terrorist strike is an act by itself and must be understood on its own terms. Comparisons are not merely silly, they may also be misleading, because they create the illusion of understanding without helping us achieve any.
That said, if we are going to be saddled with this stupid India's 9/11 nonsense, we may as well draw what lessons we can from the analogy. In particular, we should draw the lesson that we must be suspicious of any and all claims that ascribe these attacks to foreign influence, that we must demand strong evidence for every alleged link to an outside terrorist group, that we must not allow ourselves to be fobbed off with poorly specified conspiracy theories, or be blinded to government incompetence by the bluster of their subsequent response. But most of all, that we must not allow ourselves to be taken over by the lethal combination of outrage and ignorance, must not allow our terror over today's events (and we should be afraid, very afraid) to translate into self-righteousness, prejudice, violence and the surrender of our principles and freedoms. Even if today's attack really is India's 9/11 (whatever that means) we must make sure that India's next seven years are not the US from 2001-2008.
And finally, can someone please explain to me where all this talk about these attacks being so sophisticated and well-coordinated is coming from? Arms sourcing aside, what's so hard about today's attack? You recruit a bunch of raw youths, give them, say, a week of basic training, hand them their weapons, tell them what building to hit and at roughly what time. What's the big deal? Every small-time dabbawalla in Bombay (what? you think Suketu Mehta is the only one who can come up with irrelevant local color?) handles greater coordination challenges on a daily basis.