Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Psychology of Massacres

On June 5, 1989, Chinese authorities completed the clearing up of Tiananmen square and its environs, which in previous weeks had been occupied by pro-democracy protesters who seemed, at one point, on the verge of shaking up the ruling Communist Party hierarchy. That morning, as a column of tanks moved down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, it was briefly stopped by a man who stood in front of the first vehicle, climbed up and remonstrated with the soldier inside, then got down and blocked the path of the tanks once more. The man was removed by security officers, but not before half a dozen cameramen staying in the Beijing Hotel nearby had captured his lone protest on film and video in images that became instantly iconic.

The man has never been identified, but his gesture of protest appears to have been spontaneous. He was, after all, carrying a shopping bag in one hand and his jacket in another; like somebody going about his own business till he felt a sudden wave of revulsion against what was happening around him and decided to make his own suicidal gesture against brute power.
Everybody who witnessed that moment was convinced the gesture was suicidal. Policemen and soldiers had been instructed to give no quarter to demonstrators; they were shooting to kill, and had murdered hundreds of civilians already. Yet, the tanks did not roll over the man in the white shirt. The commander of the lead vehicle tried to bypass the unarmed pedestrian, rather than shoot him dead in the middle of the avenue. His decision, too, was spontaneous. He, too has remained unidentified. If we live long enough for China to turn democratic, we might discover the fate of the man who stood in front of the tanks. I hope to learn, also, about the soldier who spared the life of a protester instead of reacting with extreme prejudice as his superiors had ordered him to do.

The past few days have been filled with stories about slip-ups in the operation against terrorists who massacred nearly 200 people in Bombay on November 26 last year. Some of these issues have been publicised previously: the police did not have good bullet proof jackets, information was not communicated properly between units, commandos took inordinately long to arrive on the scene, many guards within VT station fled their posts, and so on. Some new revelations include: officers sitting in the control chamber at the Taj hotel could tell from security cameras that all four attackers were holed up in a single room for long periods, over an hour in one case. Though there were over 100 policemen at the scene by this time, they made no effort to engage the four gunmen. Later, the four emerged, split up, set fire to the sixth floor of the heritage wing, ambushed guests being led out from Wasabi restaurant, and kept the nation on tenterhooks for a further fifty hours.
I understand why the police failed to act, because I have no respect for their ability or character. They are corrupt, brutal and incompetent, and each of these qualities feeds off the others in a vicious downward spiral. What I have not been able to understand are the actions of the militants. From the perspective of their controllers, I suppose, it was a spectacularly successful operation, apart from one unexpected downside, namely the capture of Ajmal Kasab. Presuming, however, that the instructions were to kill as many people and cause as much damage as possible, the terrorists made some strange choices. There were hundreds of vulnerable men and women at the Oberoi but, after an initial shooting frenzy, few further attempts were made to hunt down and kill guests. Having completed their gruesome assignment at VT, Ajmal Kasab and Abu Ismail sauntered across to Cama Hospital where they claimed a few more vicitims, but spared a number of others, locking them up in a toilet instead of executing them. What was the rationale behind that act? It certainly wasn't lack of ammunition, because they proceeded to battle a posse of policemen, escape the hospital, take over a police vehicle after killing the three police officers in it, and drive away. At the Taj, meanwhile, not only did the attackers congregate in one space and remain inactive for a long period of time, they did relatively little damage to the structure of the hotel, though they had the time and tools to burn the entire place down.
My best guess is that the terrorists assumed they would engage in a fight to the death with security personnel within an hour or two of coming ashore. When that did not happen, thanks to the ineptness and cowardice of Bombay's protectors, the attackers had no fall back plan, and acted in random, unpredictable ways while trying to reach their superiors for further instructions.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the fact is, horrible as the massacres of 26 November were, the toll could have been much higher had it not been for the indecisive behaviour of the terrorists.

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