Column : We always overcome

Written by Michael Walton | Michael Walton | Updated: Dec 4 2008, 09:33am hrs
What do terrorists want Whether they are attacking Mumbai or London, Madrid or New York, they want to shake our confidence that we can go about our lives without fear, they want to deepen polarisation along the faultlines linked to their cause, and they want massive publicity for their capacity to act. Beyond this, Jihadi terrorists want to attack what they view to be depraved capitalist wealth creation.

The first tragedy of the Mumbai attack was the terrible loss of life across all social strata. Perhaps the most poignant of the attacks was on a hospital known for helping the poor. The second tragedy was its short-run success with respect to these objectives. What will be the longer-term effects on the society and economy The experience of other attacks suggests this depends on the response. Public action can either undermine or further the aims of the terrorists.

Statistically, terrorism is associated with adverse economic impacts that are much larger than the direct damage caused, a consequence of the effects on business confidence. However, New York in 2001, Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005 all recovered quickly. In London, the Underground was open the day after the attacks. Most Londoners used public transport.

Individuals looked for collective means of managing their grief and shock. Traditionally brusque New Yorkers became emotionally available in the streets. London streets filled with people from all ethnicities and religions. Mayor Ken Livingstone spoke to Londoners experience in the Blitz of the Second World War and terrorist attacks of the Irish Republican Army. In one memorable statement, he said there would be attacks again, but this would not shake Londoners commitment to their core way of life. In Madrid there was an outpouring of solidarity, especially since so many of the 190 victims were working class, and some 50 were immigrants. In all cities, the collective emotional solidarity was palpable. It constituted an immediate societal rejection of the aims of the terrorists. These are resilient cities, with old or new histories of inclusion.

The immediate responses were profoundly moving. But of equal importance was the extent to which leaders could transform these into actions that would deprive the terrorist causes of their oxygen. This was more mixed.

After 9/11, there was a moment of hope in the US. The government seemed to be reaching out in a spirit of inclusion. President Bush attended prayers at a mosque. There was massive international sympathy. This was then blown. The government pursued a punitive strategy of us and them, most dramatically in Iraq. It was combined with severe, illegal restrictions on civil and human rights at home and abroad. Guantnamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the lack of resolve vis--vis the plight of Palestinians and the invasion of Lebanon, all played directly into the narratives of alienation and injustice that support terrorists cause.

In Madrid, 11-M marked more of a turning point. It occurred on the eve of an election and the government of PM Aznar lost credibility and votes because it was perceived to be making political use of the attacks, prematurely and incorrectly claiming that they were the responsibility of Basque terrorists. The new government of PM Zapatero pursued a systematically more inclusive agenda, including vis--vis immigrants.

The UK, while tarred with the brush of association with the Iraq war, did better than the US after the 2005 attack of 7/7. There was a significant effort to reach out to British Muslim communities. However, this was almost certainly not enough: there remain large numbers of alienated young Muslim men (and women), providing fertile breeding ground for radicalisation. There was also major investment in the intelligence services, often working with communities, and substantial success in identifying subsequent plots. But this was blighted by the insistence of Prime Ministers Blair and Brown on an extension of the time of detention without trial, beyond what the security services said they needed. This looked like political posturing.

The statistical evidence on terrorism suggests no direct relationship with poverty. Terrorism does not go away with development. Most terrorists are educated. But greater political liberties are associated with less terrorism. These are general associations. Beyond this, specific action makes a difference. An effective state intelligence and security service is of course necessary. International action is needed to respond to international threats. But of equal importance is pursuit of an agenda of reconciliation and debate that undermines the narratives of injustice that provide succour to the terrorists cause.

So soon after such a searing collective experience, as a foreigner I do not want to comment directly on the Mumbai experience. However, I believe the international experience provides cause for hope: great cities can recover quickly, socially and economically, from major terrorist attack. But this depends on the choices made by political and other leaders.

Major terrorist attacks in India since 2006

November 26-29, 2008: Heavily-armed terrorists hit multiple targets in Mumbaithe main train station, world-famous five-star hotels popular with foreigners, an upmarket restaurant, a Jewish centrekilling about 200 people in a 62-hour operation.

October 30, 2008: Serial bomb blasts in multiple cities in Assam left at least 61 people dead more than 300 injured.

September 13, 2008: Five bomb blasts in New Delhi's popular shopping centers left 21 people dead and more than 100 injured.

July 26, 2008: Serial blasts in Ahmedabad killed 45 people and injured more than 150.

May 13, 2008: A series of six explosions in Jaipur killed 63 people and injured more than 150.

August 25, 2007: Forty-two people killed and 50 injured in twin explosions at a crowded park and a popular eatery in Hyderabad.

May 18, 2007: A bombing during Friday prayers at Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad, killed 13 people.

September 8, 2006: 37 people were killed and 125 were injured in a series of bomb blasts in the vicinity of a mosque in Malegaon, Maharashtra.

July 11, 2006: Seven bomb blasts occurred at various places on the Mumbai suburban railway, killing 200.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Social & Economic Change, and the Centre for Policy Research