The Social In Security

The recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai are inspiring calls for heightened security and a less open society. Himanshu Burte argues that this is the wrong approach, and that throwing up boundaries would be a mistake.
Photo: Himanshu Burte

Reflecting upon the terror attack on Mumbai in a recent [op-ed] for The New York Times, the novelist Amitav Ghosh said something relevant to any such strike anywhere: "Defeat or victory is not determined by the success of the strike itself; it is determined by the response". He was arguing against a paranoid or aggressive response which would obviously play into the hands of the masterminds of the terror. Apart from causing damage and grief, the attacks were clearly meant to be a provocation. Their dramatic nature was crucial to this objective. And their brazenness provided the drama.

The attackers allegedly came by fishing boat from Karachi, Pakistan and landed at Mumbai a little after dark on November 26, 2008. Splitting up into small teams, they launched coordinated attacks on several locations with automatic rifles, grenades, and explosives. Among the locations they attacked were the city's busiest railway station with its majestic Gothic architecture, a cafe popular with foreign tourists, a hospital for women and children, a landmark cinema, a Jewish center, a luxury hotel, and the prestigious and historic Taj Palace Hotel next to Mumbai's iconic Gateway of India monument. At the end of a 60-hour battle with security personnel, at least 188 people lay dead and nearly 300 injured. The damage to the hotels was severe and they will take at least one year to reopen. A cosmopolitan metropolitan area home to 19 million people, and also the financial and entertainment capital of India, was shaken.

How to Respond?

Given the nature of this assault on the fifth largest city in the world, it is natural to ask: what would be a fitting response to this, but also to other such attacks in other places? One response would match the gory drama of the attacks themselves: war against the ‘enemy' (or some stand-in at hand); a very visible ‘tightening up' of security in the city and across the country; anti-terror laws that give the police carte blanche; even reformatting the physical space of cities and buildings to reduce vulnerability to another attack. In other words, arming up for war after we feel we have lost the battle.

Another response could begin by asking if the big dramatic gesture is really the best guarantee for the longevity of quietness in the city. I do not imply that the theatricality of a response is itself suspect even if some objective measure of theatricality were possible. I suggest, rather, that theatricality is a dubious consideration in any effective response to the attacks. Unfortunately, official and popular response during such a time of shock leans more easily towards the theatrical because of its emotional comfort.

Constricting the City

Measures of emergency response -- cordoning off attack sites, closing off paths of escape -- are understandable in the short term. However, they can quickly become ‘theatrical' when their intrusion upon daily life is far stronger than their likely effectiveness during an attack. In the early 1990s I lived in New Delhi for one year while its public spaces were feared to be targets for terrorist attacks. Police barriers on roads to create checkpoints were part of the furniture of the city then. They successfully communicated the state of siege and turned each of us into a potential victim and aggressor at the same time. But I have never heard anything about their effectiveness in catching real terrorists.

Those of us concerned with designing or managing the physical environment too are prone to such theatrical responses. A report I read via Planetizen reveals that in Mumbai the terrorists caused great damage by firing and lobbing grenades from upper floors into the atriums of one or both big hotels. A theatrical response to this would be to reconsider atriums on ‘security' grounds. But why stop then at atriums? Why not staircases too? A hundred other design devices that help terrorists in an attack also enable our everyday life. When in our peacetime actions we begin to let stray acts of terror change the orientation of our imagination, the game is effectively over.

Our imaginations are one important target for the terrorists. So it is particularly important to examine the imagination at work in possible responses. I suspect that the usual theatrical gestures of response -- war, roadblocks, visa counters, terrifying anti-terror laws -- spring from an implicit faith in the potential clarity and firmness of social and physical boundaries. They also reveal a view of place that believes it is (or can be) closed off against the world out there. War makes practical sense only when you believe that you will cause more damage across the border than on this side. Closing roads ‘works' only when terrorists want to get ‘in' or ‘out', not when they are already among us and don't plan to escape. And anti-terror laws are based on faith that the police are quickly able to tell the terrorist from the innocent. How much more history of the failure of each of those assumptions do we need to pile up before we question this imagination seriously?

Perhaps, theatricality and a closed vision of place are linked. By contrast, a belief that places emerge at the intersections of flows from all directions to all others, for instance, would believe much less in the efficacy of boundaries (Footnote 1). It is clear that every city, every place in fact, is inextricably linked to global flows, not just of capital but also of people, values, and ‘feelings'. It is also clear that these flows are difficult to control (without exceptional cost of all kinds, and possibly poor results) through security ‘filters' that are bound to fail at some time. If we accept these two facts, then we see that the traditional theatrical response of ‘closing off' by reflex is inadequate.

An Open Intersection

Such a view points towards two things, perhaps. First, an ‘open' imagination of the idea of ‘place'. And second, a view of the security of places that needs to work with and through criss-crossing flows rather than against them. A view of every city, and every place, as an intrinsically ‘open' intersection of flows would have many implications. First, it would focus attention on strengthening a range of internal pathways and flows, such as those related to information for instance, instead of on external barriers only. Remember that there was fairly strong information available about the possibility of the attack on Mumbai, but the lack of communication between security agencies in India prevented preemptive or rapid action. There are also unconfirmed reports that people saw the attackers get off their rubber boats and told the police, again without much follow-up.

Such a view would also try to strengthen the ‘right' kind of flows across places, and the borders that do exist. The very opposite is, of course, happening on the ground. For instance, Ghulam Ali, a renowned Pakistani singer who is very popular in India, was apparently asked by the Pakistan government to cancel his imminent trip to eastern India just after the attack, citing ‘security concerns'. Understandable as the advice is, at a time when many Indians are in danger of holding all of Pakistan responsible for the attack and terrorism in general, perhaps Ali's songs might have helped many in India to imagine Pakistan also as a land of music itself equally vulnerable to violence.

I do not expect that indiscriminate ‘openness' is the solution, at least not at this moment. Sure, we need to strengthen the gates. But if we also do not open many more channels at the same time, the flows of people, goods and feelings that alone can construct a productive peace will never occur. At best, the gate can stop a large percentage of attackers. But gates are never perfect, as we well know. A vision centred on pathways of contact, meanwhile has the potential for weakening the very conditions that terror feeds off: the isolation of places and people from each other.

Footnote 1: The view of place here is a simplified interpretation of the much richer conceptualisation of space developed by Doreen Massey in 'For Space', (Sage Publications, London: 2005)


Himanshu Burte is an Indian architect visiting the University of California, Berkeley, on a Fulbright Fellowship for research related to the politics of public space. He is the author of 'Space for Engagement: The Indian Artplace and a Habitational Approach to Architecture' (Seagull Books, Kolkata: 2008)

Comments

Comments

The Social Insecurity

Mr. Burte has raised some pertinent questions about a nation’s response to terrorists attack like the one on 26th November in Mumbai, India.

His comment, “..aggressive response which would obviously play into the hands of the masterminds of the terror..” probably indicates his aversion to a ‘tit for tat’ reaction , though such a response may become necessary to ascertain and declare a nation’s resolve to uphold its sovereignty and independence. If “..the attacks were clearly meant to be a provocation..” does he imply that Indians should not allow themselves to be “provoked” even after “ ..a cosmopolitan area, home to19 million people and also the financial and entertainment capital of India was shaken.. “?

One would agree with him that “closing roads” etc. is a theatrical response that achieves little except causing inconvenience to the citizen and curbing use of recreational & other amenities. This is a Planner’s point of view. But the same theatrical response (like road barriers, sandbags with machine gun totting commandoes etc) can help to instill a sense of security (even if false) and being “under protection” to the common citizens. Is it not as important?

No amount of security precautions and what Mr. Burte calls “theatrical responses” can resolve the problem because a terrorist is a “dedicated’ and fanatical individual who knows that he will not live through his suicidal mission. The only possible remedy is to have a very strong and intensive intelligence net work. to fore warn an impending strike .

He states further “..war makes practical sense when you believe that you will cause more damage across the border..” We have to take into consideration the geo-political realities in the subcontinent. Despite its subdivision in to two nations of Pakistan & India in 1947, the former has never accepted the realities, not being able to overcome the hangover of the Mughal empire that ruled India before the British.. With that hangover, Pakistan, since 1947, has waged 5 wars with India, of its own making and lost all of them most ignominiously! Despite its religious fanaticism it has the sense to appreciate that a nuclear war with India may destroy part of India but will physically annihilate Pakistan completely. So, what could be an option?

When examined in this perspective we should realize that what happened in Mumbai in November was not a random terrorist attack by a group (as is the case in many European countries like Germany, Spain, etc.) but a “Trial Run” of a state sponsored undeclared war ! If, just 10 well trained commandoes can hold a city of 19 million in terror why antagonize the whole world by waging a conventional war? Such a terror war instills a fear psychosis amongst the urban populace, shakes their confidence in its elected government. and creates doubts in the entire system of democracy and democratic governance! That is the objective of such attacks by a terror state like Pakistan.

We need to realize and understand these geopolitical realities in the Indian subcontinent
(which are unique and quite different from any where in the world except those that exist between Israel and its neighbors) before starting on a quest for planning solutions to terror threats in our Metropolitan areas.

Prakash M Apte
Urban Development Consultant

The 'openness' needs to happen...in Pakistan

the flow of equity needs to happen first and foremost in the Sub-continent. Societies in India and Pakistan are historically ridden with social, economic, class and caste restrictions. India's economic boom has gone to some extent to disperse the equity. It is in pakistan that it is urgently required. Although delivering equity may be in the realm of politics and social policy, relatively simple urban infrastructure equity, such as the local trains of Mumbai or the sharing of marine drive by all mumbaikars are the element planners and designers (local leaders) need to focus on. If the openness of mumbai were part of Lahore, Islamabad or karachi, maybe, youth over there may not have felt persecuted and their impressionable minds corrupted by the villians that threaten the civil structure in the Sub continent

Himanshu Burte Mr. Apte’s

Himanshu Burte

Mr. Apte’s suggestion that the Mumbai terror attack was part of an undeclared war by the Pakistan government is excessively speculative- it is a claim easily made in conversation but difficult to sustain as a basis for an effective response. Perhaps this is exactly the kind of response that masterminds of the attack would want. Insistent speculation links the Laskar-e-Taiba (widely presumed in India to be behind the Mumbai attack) to the Al Qaeda which is under pressure from a joint US-Pakistan attack on it. India going to war with Pakistan would suit these extremists on the Afghanistan border perfectly since the Pakistan Army would be diverted to yet another war with India. Instead of reducing the possibility of terrorism, such a war would thus give a new lease of life to it. There is thus no clear and easy way out. There is certainly no once-and-for-all-time solution to what is a political problem (though one, I think, without a substantive centuries-old history linked to the Mughal empire that Mr. Apte alludes to) between India and Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks are the latest occasion for urban managers, planners, designers, as well as landscape architects and architects to grapple with a basic dilemma: whether to plan for peace or for war. The value of dilemnas is the questions they help raise. Question one among many others: when we make and manage environments that are just and comfortable do we perhaps help build a productive peace? Question two: When a city flexes its muscles (like at one place in New York I have seen where large concrete blocks are lined up on the streetside edge of the sidewalk as buffers for threatened buildings against car bombs) does it actually provoke an attack of desperadoes? We ask ourselves questions like these routinely (like say to deal with office politics) to chart a plan of action. Perhaps we must ask them more often in regard to the big issues too.

No social, just security [vent]

Living in a housing complex that has seen the walls grow every couple of years, I too wonder how the higher and more jagged walls (currently they are reinforcing the stone wall with broken glass pieces, even though a barbed-wire fence already extends above it) will affect our lives, and the flow of both social and anti-social elements. Our colony which once had 4 paths of entry/exit, now has only 2 in the daytime and only one after 8 pm.

All this is supposed to safeguard us from burglars, and we can never know if without the annual reinforcements, we would have had more incidents. No one dares say aloud how ugly the barriers look, or what toll they have taken on our daily lives - "what else can we do?" I too have no answer. Earlier we shared an entrance with the adjacent apartment complex, now that too is closed, and the children from the apartments don't come as often to play in the colony playground. Just on the other side of one of the walls is an open dumping ground, breeding mosquitoes that cross all barriers with indifferent ease. After recent cases of malaria and one case of dengue in our colony, we are all afraid to be in the playground in the evening. So no matter what the problem, the solution seems to be to close ourselves in. No social, just security. And heaven help us if *we* ever needed to escape quickly.

The Social Insecurity

It is a matter of deepest regret and misfortune for India that there is a large section of people who, despite any amount of solid proof and evidence that evena blind man could see,refuse to accept facts and continue to call Pakistan's undeclared war as exaggeration and making mountain of a mole hill! It is a measure of success for the Nehruvian misguidance of the Indian people reflected in the kind of statement made by the then Home Minister of Maharashtra that 'such SMALL incidences do keep happening in a large Metropolis!' The common people will ultimately pay with their lives for such blinkered thinking of the so called experts.

Prakash M. Apte
Urban Development Consultant

The Social Insecurity

It is a matter of deepest regret and misfortune for India that there is a large section of people who, despite any amount of solid proof and evidence that evena blind man could see,refuse to accept facts and continue to call Pakistan's undeclared war as exaggeration and making mountain of a mole hill! It is a measure of success for the Nehruvian misguidance of the Indian people reflected in the kind of statement made by the then Home Minister of Maharashtra that 'such SMALL incidences do keep happening in a large Metropolis!' The common people will ultimately pay with their lives for such blinkered thinking of the so called experts.

Prakash M. Apte
Urban Development Consultant

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