Originally Published 2004-06-21 12:39:27 Published on Jun 21, 2004
The successive torture and slaying of individual Americans in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf region has a new message for the civilized world. Whatever be the rationale behind the decision-making at the governmental-level, the average American is ready for a long engagement with terrorism and terrorists.
Learning from the 'new American'
The successive torture and slaying of individual Americans in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf region has a new message for the civilized world. Whatever be the rationale behind the decision-making at the governmental-level, the average American is ready for a long engagement with terrorism and terrorists. 

The loss of a dear one, that too to barbaric killing, which is even more different from the catastrophic terrorist attack of the 9/11 kind, cannot be overlooked or ignored. The loss of a promising citizen to the community and the nation too cannot be overlooked. Lesser mortals have now perished on the altar of mindless terrorist 'revenge', if that were the case, yet, the possibility of a political or business personality similarly falling prey cannot be ignored, either. 

Yet, through all this, the US as a nation and Americans as a people have displayed a kind of determination that was believed to be absent before 9/11. In the years after 'Vietnam war', at least the media had concluded that the average American had lost his stomach for war, and that the number of 'body bags' alone would determine the mood of the people, in supporting or not supporting - outright opposition would have to come later - any war involving the US. 

While the number of body bags arriving at the American shores has been substantial from Iraq, and fewer from Afghanistan, they are no way comparable to those from the Vietnam War. There are a few distinct differences in the situation prevailing then and now. One, the Vietnam War dragged on for 25 years, and became frustrating for the American soldier, leader and the population as it became a losing proposition after a point, and Washington would not admit it and withdraw from the scene. In comparison, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US won a hi-tech war without much loss of life, on either side. The problem is with 'keeping'. 

Two, even without the loss of face and the battles, the Vietnam War was premised on a much-hyped apprehension of the times, namely 'communist expansionism'. Even as the war dragged on, there was increasing evidence to the US not being a direct victim of such 'expansionism'. There was also realization that where such 'communist expansionism' of the Soviet or the Chinese variety occurred, there was little that the 'free West' could do to contain it - other than making appropriate noises, and appropriating secret funds that achieved precious little in the end. That the US and the CIA could do precious little to oust a Fidel Castro in the American continental backyard may have been a point, and there were enough pointers of the kind, with each passing year.

Against this, 9/11 was real, and the Americans actually felt the loss, shock and humiliation of it, and not necessarily in that order. Such a disaster could not have occurred in the 'Cold War' era because the checks and balances built into the system is another matter. Yet, the US may have preferred it from a known and notified enemy like the erstwhile Soviet Union, when it still existed, and not from an unsolicited adversary, who had remained non-existent in the American mindset after the early years of 'Palestine-linked' terrorist acts like hijacking. 

It is in this background, the increasing display of American resilience to the crude and cruel terrorist killings of their fellow citizens needs to be understood. Compared even to the kidnapping and slaying of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in the months after 9/11, the more recent killings in Iraq and Saudi Arabia have stopped shocking the American nation and the people. They do feel sorry for the family, they do share the loss of a human life, and leaders like President Bush do make appropriate declarations on the renewed determination to fend off and fight off terrorism to the last. 

It is the kind of determination and indifference that nations and peoples have to display if they have to win the PR-based psychological aspect of the war against terrorist groups, and terrorism as a whole. That way, it is possible that the forgotten first plane-hit on the WTC may have been Bin-Laden's own way of sending out an invite for the international electronic media to be present when the second, major hit occurred half-hour or so later. Yet, it produced as much revulsion as shock, and the contribution of the American commentators and the media could not be over-looked.

In comparison, India as a nation, and the Indian media as a part thereof, needs to learn its lessons, yet. Even granting that the nation and the Government were not mentally prepared to face the challenges of the kind that accompanied the 1989 kidnapping of the Home Minister's daughter, years later over the Kandahar hijack, we repeated the blunder, and yielded to terrorist demands. Neither the nation had prepared itself for such an eventuality, nor had the political and bureaucratic masters prepared themselves for the same. 

So much so, the electronic media in India contributed in no small measure to a confused Government yielding to the pressures of the hijackers and their backers, when it repeatedly highlighted the travails and trials of the affected families. They did no better even months later, at the height of the 'Parliament attack', when they went about announcing in which part of the complex were all the nations rulers and prospective rulers huddled. We even had ministers and MPs at the time confirming their position on the mobile to television anchors for the whole world - and 'surviving terrorists' - to watch. It was but accidental that no terrorist had survived the first burst of attack, yet the fact remained that the Parliament House had not been sanitized when the televised drama was unfolding itself. 

The point is to suggest that in fighting terrorism, all sections, including responsible sections of the media, have a role to play. Contrasting between human rights violations in the fight against terrorism is one thing, but commercializing terrorist acts in a game of one-upmanship is another. The still evolving Indian media can take lessons from its more matured and often-quoted western counterparts: "Remember the 'Watergate', if not the 'Monica Lewinski' affair". It has often been found that when it comes to foreign and security policies, the American media view the world mostly through the eyes of the White House. At the height of the 'Afghanistan War', most of the western media stopped showing Osama bin-Laden after President Bush appealed to them, not to promote the man or his distorted cause. 

It may be too early in the day to conclude how long the current American determination to fight off terrorism, and its perceived indifference to the loss of lives of fellow American in the cause of the war on terrorism, would last. Yet, even what is being witnessed contrasts with perceptions of the average American's self-importance to life and family, putting the nation at the periphery of his priorities. Though it may be easy to preach than to practice, this is the kind of perception that nations and peoples would have to emulate if they have to fight off terrorism over the long run. This is a spirit that is in all of us, requiring no cooperation or coordination between nations in the name of 'war on terrorism', but needs to be revived, nonetheless, from time to time.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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