2008-12-05 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Massacre in Mumbai
by Stuart W. Mirsky

They came by sea, as we have now learned, in small boats approaching an unguarded, vulnerable coast. Beaching their vessels without resistance they rushed into the streets, pushing locals out of their way, as they headed for their appointments with destiny and with terror. For something like three days, at least ten terrorists (and maybe more) occupied civilian centers, took hostages, slaughtered civilians and held off security forces in India's most cosmopolitan city and financial center as the world looked on. Many in the U.S. and elsewhere couldn't help drawing comparisons with other terrorist attacks including our own traumatic moment on September 11th, 2001 in New York, Washington, D.C. and in the skies overhead. In the aftermath of the Mumbai massacre, some 170 (at last count) were left dead, countless others were hurt or in a state of shock, and India was reeling with recriminations and fear.

Why had these killers come? The usual reasons, of course: they were bent on finding and killing Americans, British and, as it turned out, Jews. Not only did they seek out large hotels where the important and wealthy congregated, they targeted a small facility run by a sect of Hasidic Jews whose sole purpose was to provide a respite for backpacking Jewish kids traveling on the cheap, in the hopes of winning them back to a religious life. Lubavitcher hostels of this type are common in many places around the globe. Though they rarely win converts, they provide a respite for economyclass travelers and orthodox Jews seeking a kosher meal in distant lands. The terrorists went out of their way to find this particular place and kill its inhabitants, including the young rabbi and his wife who ran it.

In the larger scheme of things, of course, the small number of guests and residents in the Hasidic hostel were only a tiny part of all the killings committed by this crew of fanatics and the grief of those left behind by the killings at the hostel can be no greater than that felt by those who lost any of the other victims in Mumbai during those three days. But the fact that the attackers went out of their way to kill people in such an inoffensive, off-the-beaten-track location speaks volumes about what we are dealing with. Whether it's flying civilian jetliners into buildings filled with thousands in Mumbai

of civilians or running up a beach to seek out and kill people indiscriminately, there is a great evil afoot in the world that we overlook at our peril.

Our nation, initially awakened by the brutal attacks against the World Trade Center and other American targets on September 11th, 2001, seems to have grown inured to such threats. In the last presidential election, national security took a back seat to other concerns. Americans, in fact, seemed downright tired of the issue of terrorism, indeed even a little bored. Yet, just as 9/11 occurred in a way few of us had contemplated beforehand, the Mumbai attacks once again serve as a wake-up call, if we'll only recognize the alarm that's ringing. People living along coastal areas of this country, especially in places like Rockaway, have now been witness to the risks inherent in this kind of vulnerability. The shores of this nation are long and largely unguarded because you can't hermetically seal off a modern nation, especially one that prides itself on freedom, or is as large and diverse as ours. Yet, if such attacks could happen in Mumbai, why not here? Does anyone seriously think that this is not in the minds of those who continue to dream of ways to do us harm?

For seven years after 9/11, we have been safe from attacks, not only from the air and sea but from potential dangers that could come to us in a myriad of ways (including the poisoning of our food and drinking supplies, attacks on nuclear power stations, biological and radiological attacks, etc.). After 9/11 few of us imagined we would have gone on so long without further attacks or that we would ever have gotten back to normal again. But it happened. And not by accident either. The incoming Obama administration needs to bear this in mind.

Despite the New York Times' relentless carping and incomprehensible exposure of U.S. intelligence agencies' surveillance efforts directed at overseas telephone calls by known terrorists, of so-called data mining to detect patterns indicative of potential terrorism, of the tracking and, in some cases, shutting down of money flows to terror-supporting organizations, of our aggressive pursuit and interrogation of terrorists abroad and infiltration and undercover operations against suspected terrorist cells at home, of federal prosecutions of terrorists for planning and training for future attacks, of the incarceration of captured terrorists at Guantanamo in Cuba, of profiling to detect terrorists before they make it onto airplanes and our public transport systems, and of the Patriot Act which increases the capacity of our intelligence agencies to share and access information, despite all the angry attacks against such efforts with the aim of exposing and undermining them, the Bush administration has stuck it out and kept us safe.

You can't draw an impenetrable line around our coasts anymore than the Indians can do it around theirs, so there's just one way to fight those who want to come here and wreak havoc. You have to stop them before they can act, something the Indian security forces clearly failed to do. The law enforcement model, which aims to try and punish perpetrators, doesn't work when the perps don't fear punishment (because they actually plan to die in carrying out their operations against you anyway). You can't prevent attacks of this type by threats of criminal prosecution, in any event, because the damage they hope to do is too great. You can't risk allowing it to take place at all.

Those who would commit such acts don't fear jail time or capital punishment, and certainly not the due process and Miranda rights of our criminal justice system. In a world where maximum and maximum killing technologies their tools, we can't afford to wait until after such attacks to deal with those who would bring them about or to expose our methods of discovering their secrets by the rules of our traditional judiciary.

After 9/11 the Bush administration rightly concluded that our nation needed more than increased criminal indictments, prosecutions and convictions to stay safe. It needed a vigilant and proactive homeland security apparatus to sniff out and neutralize would-be terrorists before they could act. This didn't sit well with civil libertarians, to be sure, but a nation without safety cannot expect to have liberty either. Some Americans at least understood this.

For seven years, opponents of the Bush administration made political hay by denouncing the administration's efforts to ferret out and eliminate threats before they materialized but now the ball of national security is in their court. President-elect Barack Obama will shortly take up the gauntlet that has been carried for seven years by an outgoing president who garnered little but obloquy and insult for his efforts. Hopefully, the new president's supporters will be more understanding now that one of their own has this burden to carry. Certainly Barack Obama appears sensitive to the implications of his new role, as his early cabinet selections seem to promise. We can only hope the message of Mumbai isn't lost on him as he prepares to move into the Oval Office and that he does not allow this nation to drop its guard just as we're in the midst of changing it. rockirreg@aol.com

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