1000 Days of Theory
When the events in Mumbai unfolded, I was at a talk on Bhutanese numismatics in London. Geographically far from the attacks, but geography is not merely the territory inked on maps that schoolchildren learn. On global latitudes and longitudes where people can sip coffee at Starbucks, they see the trite slogan ‘Geography is a flavour’. Geography is not about the extremes of maps and flavours. In our times of instantaneous media transmission and reaction, offline and online lives, recorded and unrecorded deaths, we live in an interconnected synaptic world where the neural impulses of terror can create geographies of the mind. And this is what Spectacular Acts of Terrorism seek to achieve. A control over the geographies of the mind — a desire to eliminate alternative forms of thought, expression and action. Alternatives are what fundamentalists fear — alternatives in every form — alternative modes of dressing, alternative notions of the sacred and of God, dissenting alternatives in political representation through democracy.
Spectacular Acts of Terrorism create Events which are designed to shift the public discourse by rupturing processes of dialogue and understanding. A Big Bang such as planes that crash into buildings, or trains that explode, or discotheques that blow up, or a rain of bullets across a city — brings about a quantum shift in every single aspect of individual perception and public policy — immediately. This is the deliberate outcome of such Spectacles — they are planned to disrupt incrementalist and rational development of thought processes at every level of a pluralist functioning state and society. This is why they happen unannounced, this is why they happen simultaneously at multiple locations, and this is why they target places of public prominence.
Who carries out such Spectacular Acts? We hear that the terrorists in Mumbai were young men in jeans with rucksacks who went for carnage with smiles on their faces. It is foolish to assume that the terrorists who go for such Spectacles are desperate people interested in alleviating genuine grievances. Of course, terrorists fight for a cause. But that cause isn’t what they kill for; the specificity and legitimacy of their cause (Iraq, Kashmir, Gujarat, Chechya, Afghanistan, whatever they may think it to be) is condensed into the general and universal terms of violence and hatred by those who recruit them and radicalise them. By the time they spray bullets and hold hostages, asking for justice on their own terms, they have long betrayed themselves and become prisoners of manipulated representations.
How do people become violent terrorists? In practical terms, terrorists may be motivated by many things — money, obligation, and ideological indoctrination among them. But there is no successful terrorist who is not able to combine that motivation with strategy. A terrorist attack requires a string of very complicated strategic operations with very many unknowns and unpredictables. A person or group of persons who engage in such activity with whatever aim are by definition required to be ‘intelligent’ about their surroundings. It is wrong to think, as some people do, that terrorism is an emotional response to injustice. Poetry is an emotional response to injustice, not terrorism. Terrorists are moved by hatred. This hatred is not an emotional state of being, it has been transmogrified into a cold and calculated steely determination for a purpose. The alchemy by which a legitimate human emotional response is magnified and petrified, transformed and solidified into a wholly illegitimate reaction — that alchemy deserves investigation. In particular, there are two necessary ingredients in this alchemy. One, the power of concepts. Two, the significance of co-ordinated strategy. Al-Qaeda types are adept at both.
Governments, academia, policymaking prize simple answers. They are confronted with problems, they turn to ‘experts’ (security experts, development experts etc), they value instrumental, practical, utilitarian solutions suggested by the specialists who can show a politician a diagram with arrows that lead back and forth. This is the logic of closed systems — if this, then that. The world is an open system. Spectacular Acts of Terrorism are complex situations. By complex situations I mean those where definitions overlap, familiar empirical referents do not work, and one where a certain degree of outsiderness is essential to be able to put the story together and make the connexions. This requires not just the logic of chess with pre-set moves, but a recognition of systems-level randomness.
Let me illustrate with an example. Look at the places where Spectacular terrorists strike. They hit symbolic locations in general. The financial ones they strike because commerce brings disparate people together, it cuts across conventional national and regional boundaries. Trade connects. But also they strike airports, railway stations, hotels, markets, department stores. Why not unremarkable residential areas? Because residential areas are figured out — there is a stability of our knowledge about them. When people are at such places, they are leading settled and somewhat ordered lives. Spectacular Terrorists strike at places of transience. These are places with some or other element of movement and change. No one lives in a hotel or a railway station or an airport. In these place, people are mixed up, their bodies and identities are in motion, this multiplicity is anathema to the fundamentalists. Strategically, it is easier to create chaos at such incompletely stable locations, but it is also a symbolic lashing out against mixing, against travel, against mobile identities. In Mumbai, they chose hotels. It isn’t just because foreigners were there or rich people were there, it is also because the very architecture of hotels, airports and rail stations lends itself to a dynamic unmappability. One can create a sudden and prolonged situation by storming into a hotel and herding people to the upper floors as hostages where the conventional boundaries between the perpetrator and the victim can get blurred. Were the terrorists only those who entered with guns and grenades? Were they also some of the employees? Were they, and I shudder to speculate, even some guests who provided networks of contact and later pretended to be hostages and escaped from the situation? This uncertainty and asymmetric information is specifically enabled by sudden attacks at places of transience.
People lament that writers and academics only have mere words. How can words matter in a world where action counts, they ask? What use is theory when some policeman is having to face fire and death to save lives. And this is true. People die, commandos fight. Yet we know from our lives that a time of crisis is also a time for reflection. For the hand to move, something in the head must move first. Words not only lead to actions but in a very real sense words are actions. Words are actions because they cause us to see things in one particular way out of the many possible ways in which they can be seen. What Spectacular terrorism achieves is a change in representations and world-views of the perpetrators before it can achieve a destructive change in an urban landscape. And this requires concepts — words and images.
A security guard whose job it is to watch CCTV footage may find that a boring task. It is work and spells monotony. With the advent of reality TV, people sit on sofas in front of Big Brother type shows or watch ordinary lives online, and that same activity is translated in a different medium and scale into mass entertainment. A conceptual change brings about a real change in the way we are a part of a situation. A young man — regardless of money, education, nationality — opts for violence because his humanity has been manipulated. He has been sold eternal glory on a universal camera lens instead of everyday struggle in front of a mirror. Spectacular Acts of Terrorism are mediatised disasters; what is on record is immortalised. Spectacular terrorism reflects a failure to deal with problems in the real time frame of ordinary lives. Carrying out disaster live on 24/7 news serves to remind the fundamentalists that violence is required to fill their black holes of hatred.
Terrorism is the madness of our times, and to understand it, we must understand the madnesses of our times.