A Turning Point in History by Air Marshal B D Jayal in IDR 15/3/13
Even as the full scale of the tragedy that struck the United States on September 11 is unfolding, it is worth pondering its strategic implications. A leading American daily has termed it as war while others have termed it Pearl Harbour II. Perhaps the most significant reaction comes from Ehud Barak, who termed it an assault on civilization itself. Coming as it does from the ex-prime minister and an ex-general of Israel, a country that has been at the receiving end of terrorism since its inception, this truly reflects on the wider international strategic security ramifications of such acts of terrorism.
While it would be premature to guess as to who the perpetrators of these heinous acts are, some preliminary observations can safely be made. That the operation was planned and executed with military precision is not in doubt, as its perverted success would amply demonstrate. Behind the operation were forces powerful enough with material, human, intelligence and financial resources to take on the might of the only superpower on its own turf, and that too in complete secrecy. To convert passenger aircraft into human bombs not only requires daring and skill, but also motivation of a fanatical kind. Amongst the perpetrators were certainly qualified and somewhat skilled airline pilots who seized control and, Kamikaze-like, finally flew into their targets. And finally the symbolism of the targets chosen cannot be ignored. Pentagon as the heart of US military power and International Trade Towers in the heart of the financial district.
Full facts about the last hijacked aircraft that crashed near Pennsylvania have not been revealed. Could it be that this was headed for Capitol Hill or the White House, thus aiming to complete the sum total of what the US stands for — the richest and most powerful nation on earth, with an open society and a democratic polity? Without wanting to jump to any conclusions, it is difficult to see how the finger of suspicion can point to any, but one or more,of the fundamentalist organizations roaming the free world with perceived grievances and looking for causes that will make them martyrs. Countries like Israel and
India who have been at the receiving end of terrorism for decades must feel that this tragedy could have been averted had the international community as a whole looked at evolving international terrorism for what it is, a plague that sooner rather than later will engulf every corner of the globe and with ever increasing ferocity as technology marches onwards benefiting both good and evil.
Perhaps the sight of two hijacked passenger jets wilfully ramming into the Trade Towers in the heart of New York’s financial district, causing their collapse, must stir even the most benign mind in every free country and society to join hands towards fighting this scourge before it is too late.
While India has been exposed to insurgency movements in the north-eastern states since independence, it was in Punjab that the Indian security establishment first encountered terrorism based on religious fundamentalism. It took longer than normal to bring it under control because of the help that the terrorists were receiving from across the western borders. Public memory is short and not many will remember the Air India Jumbo, Kanishka that was blown up in mid-air near Ireland by Sikh terrorists operating from Canada. Decades later, the culprits undergoing trial are yet to be brought to book. In Jammu and Kashmir, terrorist actions have claimed the lives of over 20,000 security men and innocent civilians. Ironically one massacre of Sikhs in Kashmir was deliberately committed when the US President was on an official visit to India. As responsible civilized societies, our reactions are measured and largely benign.
So far the reaction of free democratic societies to terrorist activities has been to treat these incidents as crimes and follow due processes of law. Whether it was the earlier bombing of the ill-fated Trade Centre in New York, blowing up of the Pan American Jumbo over Lockerbie or bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar-e-Salaam, the US governments have followed this benign and civilized path. India’s approach has been no different to the Bombay blasts accused or to the terrorist outfits in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. While our security forces continue to fight with one hand literally behind their back, human rights groups and self-proclaimed human rights activists are quick to cry foul at the slightest hint of unfair play.
Ironically, the only memory of the Punjab terrorist movement today is the legal harassment some of the policemen are undergoing having been charged with human rights violations — the very ones who finally brought terrorists to their knees at great cost to themselves. Such are the checks and balances that constitute a free civilized society, which the terrorists are only too quick to exploit.
It is time to see what really terrorism is. Its purpose is to create disturbance and panic with the aim of weakening the will of the people and the government — both physically and psychologically. Those who plan such deeds are cool strategists with calculating minds. Their tools are the brainwashed and the misguided who are made to believe in a greater cause without quite knowing what that is. Ironical though it may seem, terrorism exploits democratic society because it knows that its actions will not draw harsh responses from the government. Earlier examples are ample demonstration of how heinous terrorist crimes have gone unpunished for decades while those fighting terrorism are being hauled over the coals for transgressions of civilized norms.
Now that the world has seen on its television screens how terrorists can wage an undeclared war, it is time for the international community to sit up and take note. It is no more a case of fuelling a proxy war against a perceived enemy by providing material or physical help as Pakistan is doing to India in Jammu and Kashmir. Or supplying clandestine arms and technologies in violation of international commitments as China is doing with Pakistan in the context of long-range missiles and nuclear warheads. Nor is it worth selling arms and technologies to unrecognized parties and groups, whatever may be the commercial attractions. At the end of the day, the same flames that are sweeping some of the free nations of the world will engulf Pakistan and China.
As international leaders reflect on the wider strategic ramifications of the events of September 11, there should be little doubt in their minds that the distinction between war and peace is forever gone. What we have witnessed are ravages of war in the midst of peace with an enemy that is elusive and unknown. No rules have yet been written for such conflicts and those conventions and codes that apply to wars amongst civilized countries have no relevance.
Yesterday it was car bombs, today it is airliners converted to human bombs and tomorrow it will be nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the heart of our cities. Barak’s analysis is therefore both apt and instructive. The international community must recognize that it is now war against civilized society and democratic governments. Such acts of terrorism must be treated as an act of war against humanity and must draw swift and harsh retribution by the international community. Only then will the international order be able to first contain and then eliminate this scourge of terrorism. This is the challenge facing the civilized world. If the international community rises to this challenge, then Pearl Harbour II may well be a turning point in history much like its predecessor.
Article first published in 2001.