The terrorist violence in Mumbai, India on Thursday is a grim reminder of the challenges democratic countries will face in this century. Americans were shocked into awareness of the new face of hostility and conflict in the world on Sept. 11. Other nations have been well aware of this reality for years. More such violence is bound to follow.
Vigilance, intelligence and swift military response to groups that would sacrifice themselves to their cause will not be enough to repel such actions. Understanding what motivates such groups must inform a response.
The nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union — the Cold War, which was the biggest threat to peace during much of the latter 20th century — was, at its core, a misunderstanding. The U.S. believed the Soviet Union was poised to launch nuclear attacks on the U.S. or its allies. The Soviet Union believed the same about the U.S. Unresolved issues over spheres of influence and human rights certainly also were part of the equation, but a commitment to diplomacy might have ended the Cold War well before the Soviet Union collapsed.
Today, the U.S. is the lone military superpower, but India and China are the rising stars on the world’s economic stage. As is the case in the Middle East, where oil wealth is visible to many but not necessarily shared by everyone, the friction between “haves” and “have nots” provides the spark that lights the powder keg of violence.
Speaking on MSNBC on Friday morning, CNBC host Erin Burnett said she had recently stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai where the shootings occurred, and told an MSNBC host that it was one of the most beautiful hotels she’d ever seen. Yet just around the corner could be found some of the poorest people on the planet, she added.
“The proximity of extreme poverty and prosperity is stunning,” Ms. Burnett said.
That tension between poor and rich, especially aggravated by the country’s growing wealth, mixed with a dose of religious passion, creates desperation. That desperation is what leads people to form their own sect or cell, and take actions such as suicide missions that defy the will to live that guides most of us. This is the recipe for terrorism.
India has had more terrorist attacks in the last five years than any country other than Iraq. Its proximity to Pakistan, with which India has its own Cold War, suggests more terrorism is on the horizon. Though motives for the attacks were still unclear Friday afternoon, the rift between “haves” and “have nots” is likely a factor. Emerging democratic economic powers such as India would do well to reach out to disaffected groups and address economic inequities.