Open Sores of History

5 January 2009

There are two open sores upon the global body politic: Palestine and Kashmir. It is often said of an open sore that it is “weeping”, and certainly Palestine and Kashmir are weeping for the whole of world history.

The "Occupied Territories" are merely a flashpoint, an emotional point of reference, for regional conflict

An open sore upon history: The "Occupied Territories" are merely a flashpoint, an emotional point of reference, for regional conflict.

Both are conflicts with long histories, and can only be understood in terms of their histories. Both are virtually unresolvable by diplomacy; they are Gordian Knots bequeathed by earlier times to the present. Even if a diplomatic “solution” could be reached, we can be certain that any such proposed “solution” (deservedly placed in scare quotes) would be immediately contested, whether by force of arms or by continued diplomacy.

Kashmir is the legacy of every conceivable political problem of the modern era.

Another open sore upon history: Kashmir is the legacy of every conceivable political problem of the modern era: colonialism, partition, conflict, terrorism.

These open sores upon world history may someday be healed, whether by a settlement imposed and maintained by force or through the mutual exhaustion of the parties to the conflicts. If and when they are healed, it will not mean a generalized outbreak of world peace. There are other geographical regions that serve as the focus of a painful and traumatic history, and these could erupt as open sores at any time. Second tier protracted conflicts such as Lebanon, Colombia, Algeria, the Balkans, Taiwan, Somalia, and even Northern Ireland wait in the background to be rudely thrust into the spotlight of world history once again.

The world is no stranger to the violence of armed conflict.

The world is no stranger to the violence of armed conflict.

It is a melancholy reflection to recall that Kashmir is often said to be one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have not been there myself, and it is sad to think of the danger and political turmoil that has visited this fabled land. I am reminded of the Bamiyan Valley, also reputed to be among the most beautiful places in the world, and also found in a land torn by strife and conflict.

Kashmir is renowed as being one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Kashmir is renowed as being one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

The open sores of world history, wherever they appear, appear as symptoms of an illness. Because the global body politic is sick, healing a single sore will bring relief from pain, but it will not cure the illness. It is beyond the scope of our immediate concern to diagnose this illness at present; we will leave this for another time.

Palestine and Kashmir have both flared again and are the daily fodder of television news — the open sores have turned an angry red, and nerves are raw, sensitive to the slightest touch. The Israelis are again attempting to impose a settlement by force in Palestine, while all India has been shocked by the attack on Mumbai, which was as much a bolt from the blue as was the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.

Allow me a digression, which will be presently explained. On the page that allows WordPress users to administer their blogs, there is a display of “referrers,” that is to say, websites and sources that have referred readers to one’s blog. The day before yesterday I noticed some referrals of a curious nature. I clicked on the link, and found a translation of one of my pieces on this blog into Hindi. Several words in English remained scattered through the Hindi text, so it was obviously a machine translation. Nevertheless, there is still something remarkable about seeing one’s own prose rendered in another script. About three readers had accessed this Hindi translation, if I correctly understand how this works (very few people read my blog, so three hits from one source is significant).

The piece that had been so translated into Hindi was my The Future of Terrorism. There is likely to be a significantly increased interest in terrorism in India in the wake of the Mumbai attacks. As soon as I saw this interest from India in my piece on terrorism, I realized the limitations of what I had written. The basic principles of vulnerability to high concept / low tech terrorism, and the historically trailing indicators of terrorist use of technology remain valid, but the applications that I suggested in that earlier context were not particularly appropriate to India. In the near future I intend to expand significantly on what I have written so far on terrorism, but for the time being I want to make a few quick comments on terrorism specifically in relation to India.

India is rich in what military analysts call “soft targets” – relatively unprotected and vulnerable targets. Religious festivals routinely attract large numbers of people. It is not unusual to hear of a hundred or more people people killed when a crowd stampedes at such festivals. Given the sectarian divide between Hindus and Muslims in India, Hindu religious festivals would be a particularly attractive target for terrorist planners. Moreover, the crowded conditions in many cities are scarcely less tempting targets for terrorists.

a tempting target for terrorists.

Crowds of the Maha Kumba Mela festival held in Allahabad, India, at the “Sangham”, the confluence of three sacred rivers, the Ganges, the Yamumna and the mythical Saraswati: a tempting target for terrorists.

Given the crowded conditions in India, and the efficacy of relatively primitive methods of killing (one need only think of the example of Rwanda), terrorists intent upon inflicting pain upon Indian society need not look to any exotic forms of weaponry. The attack on Mumbai (the planning of which was based upon an aborted attack on New York City) was a textbook case of high concept / low tech terrorism. The sophistication of the attack was entirely in its planning and execution; advanced weaponry and transport played no part in this bloody spectacle.

The spectacular terrorism attacks of recent history have demonstrated how patient that terrorists can be. These outrages are not the result of irrational passion. They are not prompted by what psychologists call “episodic” anger, but by what is called “settled and deliberate” anger. Because of this settled and deliberate anger – anger of an order of magnitude that glories in the murder of escalating numbers of civilians – we can expect more of the same. And more of the same means the same pattern of low tech / high concept terrorism in which social technologies are mobilized to maximize the death toll and terror that can be derived from the simplest and more straight-forward methods of killing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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