26 November 2008

Wars and Rumors of Wars

The news from Mumbai probably lends unearned credibility to the alert from New York City warning of terrorist aspirations to attack the city's subway system. Almost as soon as word got out, officials rushed in to minimize the gravity of the threat. We are to understand that some terrorists suggested such an attack while brainstorming one summer day -- as if they don't think about such stunts all the time. Even though the magic name of al Qaeda is invoked, the impression is that the present conspiracy is no more developed, and maybe even less so, than that of the two morons who proposed to don white tuxedos and assassinate Senator Obama.

There's a hint of conflicting imperatives in all these reports. It's as if some people felt that it was necessary to mention the new possibility of terrorism even while they realized that the most likely consequence will be to further depress business in New York during the holiday season. So we see spokesmen scrambling to minimize the threat that they publicized. It's as if they needed to say something about the possibility of attack, such as it is, so that, should something actually happen, they can say: we did so anticipate this; we were not ignoring the warnings! In other words, there's a whiff of covering one's ass about the story as it's developing that seems irresponsible. I was inclined to say it should have been kept secret until I learned how the information was disseminated. In general, though, I tend to wonder when schemes like this are publicized whether the only practical result is to alert terrorists to which of their communication channels are insecure. That apparently isn't the case in this instance, but it might be some other time. I can imagine al Qaeda floating false rumors just to discover which ones are picked up by the Americans and who shouldn't be trusted in their networks.

A country like India appears terribly vulnerable to terrorism, but India also seems to be a country where corruption can sometimes trump security, not to mention a place where Muslims get it in the face far more often and far more viciously than they do in the U.S. Today's terrorism in Mumbai reminds us of what terrorists can do, but it doesn't prove that they can do it anywhere or everywhere. But the coincidence of the real attack and the rumors about New York will probably leave Americans feeling more anxious than they probably should -- at least until they get back to worrying about the economy.

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