Saturday, February 14, 2009

The horrorists

There was a recent news report that a resident of Chennai, aggrieved by the war in Sri Lanka, had committed ‘self-immolation’. Except for some political parties trying to get mileage out of the incident, I did not find anybody getting horrified that someone would actually choose to set himself on fire in full view of passers-by.

Terror attacks too suffer the same fate. When terrorists first resorted to suicide attacks or when they planted bombs, they created a sense of horror amongst the public. No longer. Anger, may be. But not horror. It is, of course, tragic for the kith and kin of those killed, but fails to horrify the desensitized public.

The terrorist who wants to make an impact has to think out-of-the-box and come up with new ways to cause that sense of horror.

In his essay, “The Greatest Sorrow”, Amitav Ghosh recalls the day from his childhood when he stared at a newspaper, mesmerized by a picture of a Buddhist monk burning at a road junction in Saigon. This was the incident, he says, that inaugurated the era of political suicide in the modern world. Since then such suicides have become so commonplace as often to go unreported. They have become a part of the unseen foundations of our awareness, present but unnoticed, like the earth beneath our basement.

‘The thickening crust of our awareness’, Amitav argues, ‘is both a sign and reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence; if that which mesmerized us yesterday ceases to interest us today, then it follows that the act which will most claim our attention will be even more horrific, even more resistant to yesterday’s imagination than the last. The horror of these acts is exactly calibrated to the indifference upon which they are inflicted. Their purpose is not warlike, in the sense of achieving specific ends through violence, their purpose is horror itself”.

‘What a terror attack tries to do is to radically interrupt the procedures and protocols that give the world a semblance of comprehensibility. Its objective is to cause long-lasting confusion and utterly disproportionate panic; it tears apart the stories through which individuals link their lives to a collective past and present. Everyday life would be impossible if we did not act upon certain assumptions about the future, near and distant; about the train we will catch tomorrow, as well as the money we pay into our pensions. Not the least of the terror of a moment such as that of 9/11 is that it reveals the future to be truly what it is: unknown, unpredictable and utterly inscrutable.’

That is why it is foolish to delude ourselves that we won the ‘war on terror’ after the 26/11 attacks. The terrorists’ purpose was ‘horror’ and that was achieved. Another lesson is that the terrorists are unlikely to come up with similar attacks, as they will fail to horrify the public in the same manner. They will try to come up with new tricks that will defy public imagination. That’s what we are up against.

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