“Isn’t it terrible about Mumbai?” said the man in the BBC canteen, just hours after the first news of the attacks on Wednesday evening.
“Are there any pictures yet?”
Pictures. Of course. He wanted to see the pictures – and the attackers wanted him to see the pictures. They wanted us all to see the pictures: pictures of people, dead and dying; of security forces rushing about, not knowing where to turn; of great iconic buildings in flames.
The IRA used to talk of their major attacks on the UK mainland as “spectaculars”. They were, literally, spectacles. We live in the age of the image, so those who seek to become globally visible must create global images.
Here’s a (partial) list: 11 September, 2001. The Twin Towers in New York, smoke billowing from the upper floors before they come crashing to the ground. In your mind’s eye, you can see the images now, can’t you?
12 October 2002: The Bali nightclub bombings. Destroyed clubs, dazed tourists. More images.
11 March 2004: The Madrid train bombings. Mangled wreckage and twisted tracks. More lasting images.
7 July 2005: The London bombings. A red, double-decker bus, its roof ripped off by a suicide bomb. More images again.
And now 26 November 2008: The Mumbai bombings. The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, one of the most recognisable buildings in all of India, with flames and smoke billowing from the roof. Another image that our minds will not erase.
Approximately three and a half thousand people were killed in those five attacks. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, an estimated five million people have died as a direct and indirect result of conflict. In Darfur, an estimated 200,000 people have died. In Zimbabwe, we don’t even have an estimate.
Do you have an image in your mind from Congo, Darfur, or Zimbabwe? No, nor do I.
And I’ll tell you why. We journalists are good at reporting sudden events. We’re good at surprises, the bigger the better. We call them “news”.
We’re not so good at things that happen slowly, or over a long period of time. We’re also not very good at things that happen in places that are dangerous or difficult to reach, where there’s no reliable power supply to recharge our cameras, mobile phones and satellite transmission equipment. In other words, we’re much better in big modern cities. Cities like New York, Madrid, London and Mumbai.
I don’t say you should blame us for it; it’s just the way it is. And those who plan terrorist attacks know it. (They also know that they get a lot more coverage if they attack Westerners than if they attack “locals”. Nearly twice as many people died in the Mumbai train station attacks in 2006 as died this week, but they were all “locals”.)
India has the third largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan. But unlike in Indonesia and Pakistan, India’s Muslims are a minority, and many of them feel they are systematically discriminated against by the Hindu majority. If it turns out that the Mumbai attackers were Indian (I hate the label “home-grown”), that may be relevant.
If it turns out that there is a Pakistan connection, we have reason to be seriously worried. The not-very-experienced Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has been trying to improve relations with India. If someone in Pakistan is trying to stop him by killing scores of Indian citizens, he’s in big trouble.
It may take a while before we know who was behind the Mumbai attacks. We may never know for sure. But when we remind ourselves that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, we have to hope that cool heads will prevail.