Shibboleth! Mumbai and Moral Responsibility

Shibboleth! Mumbai and Moral Responsibility

Shibboleth! Mumbai and Moral Responsibility

Why is it so hard for lawmakers, media and moguls to take moral responsibility?


In the wake of the terrorist attack in Mumbai out goes the top federal official, Minister for Home Affairs Shivraj Patil. He says he should have done better. Popular indignation ratifies his judgment. Since Mumbai is in the state of Maharashtra, the chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, has offered his resignation and his number two, R.R. Patil, has quit. Deshmukh says he “accepts moral responsibility.” Remember that Maharashtra, at 100 million, has a third the population of the United States, so we’re talking about very powerful officials.

Given the ratios of destruction, it’s as though New York Mayor Giuliani, Governor Pataki, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the CIA, NSA and FBI had all tendered their resignations on September 12, 2001, which of course none of them did. Like the tribe of Ephraim in the Book of Judges (12:5-6), who couldn’t pronounce the word “shibboleth,” the tongue and palate of American politicians and bureaucrats simply cannot handle the phrase “moral responsibility,” at least as a condition applying to themselves. Remember that the tribe of Gilead made everyone trying to cross the Jordan after the battle say the word “shibboleth,” and those who couldn’t were put to the sword. The best the Ephraimites could do was “s-s-siboleth.” A good lesson here. Line up the high-ups and make them say it. “I accept mowal wes-, wes-, wes-” and down comes the ax.

It’s the usual story. There were plenty of warnings. As papers like the London Sunday Times detailed, in contrast to very poor real-time coverage here in the United States, months ago the Mumbai police had information elicited from Fahim Ansari, a captive member of the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba, that a raid on the city was being planned and that he himself had reconnoitered the Taj and Oberoi hotels. The Indian authorities intercepted a telephone call made from a boat in the Arabian Sea less than two weeks before the attack, in which a terrorist suspect said, “We’re coming to Mumbai.” The Indian coast guard was alerted. But Ajmal Aamer Kasav, the surviving gunman, has apparently told the Mumbai police that he and his fellow gunmen switched ships. Presumably the US National Security Agency had a pile of overheard cellphone calls from the terrorists, calling their families and sponsors in Pakistan and Punjab. Soon we’ll be reading about self-aggrandizing leaks from US intelligence officials claiming they tried to warn the Indian authorities. The 9/11 conspiracists will claim it was an inside job.

The brain initially translates the unexpected as a minor aberration of normalcy. Look at what happened in February 2003 in Key West the day Attorney General Ashcroft and Homeland Security czar Ridge announced we’re One Nation Under Orange Alert. Four uniformed fugitives from Cuba’s navy patrol made landfall on the Homeland, passing undetected by vast flotillas of US Coast Guard and Navy vessels. Clad in their Cuban army fatigues (one had a Chinese-made handgun strapped to his hip), they wandered about, looking for a police station where they could turn themselves in. If of malign intent, the Cubans could have wiped out half the authors on the New York Times‘s bestseller list with a single salvo.

As the Mumbai carnage raged on, the US press slowly accepted that this wasn’t an attack on Westerners, that Indians weren’t merely collateral damage. On December 2 Somini Sengupta had a rather sickening story in the Times praising the “extraordinary grace” of some courageous Indians evoked by Sengupta in that ultimate imperial accolade, first-class service. “‘The only thing was to protect the guests,’ said the executive chef, Hemant Oberoi. ‘I think my team did a wonderful job in doing that. We lost some lives in doing that.'” Greater love hath no waiter than to lay down his life for the guests. Victorian fiction writers like G.A. Henty had scores of selfless characters like Oberoi.

In the old days the Western press had absolutely no comprehension of fatalities among Asians in numbers less than 50,000–the lower benchmark for newsworthy fatalities. Now it’s the other way round. In Western news reports, Indians are individually categorized as among the 188 dead in the Mumbai attack. These days, the larger the number of dead, the less visible they become. The nature of the catastrophe makes a big difference too. No Western journalist chose to bewail a huge human catastrophe when that same chief minister of Maharashtra, Deshmukh, supervised the destruction of 84,000 homes in Mumbai in 2004-05, nearly three times the number rendered homeless in Nagapattinam by the tsunami. “Many people will be inconvenienced and will have to make sacrifices if the city has to develop,” Deshmukh said then. Once again, the lowly were making sacrifices in the interests of the mighty, many of them real estate gangsters in league with Deshmukh and the ruling Congress Party.

There was no talk of “moral responsibility” in the Western press about the barbarism of making 84,000 families homeless. Nor did Deshmukh feel compelled to acknowledge moral responsibility when 2006 figures issued by his own bureaucrats recorded 1,400 suicides (undoubtedly a huge underestimate) of Indian farmers in six districts in the Vidarbha region of his state, driven to death by a carefully planned “liberalization” of the farm economy, overseen by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That state terrorism was of Western origin, promoted by economists, World Bank officials and journalists like the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman and Keith Bradsher, stepping onto Indian soil armed with Friedmanite recipes and with cellphone contact to terror centers in Washington, Harvard and Chicago. Almost exactly a year ago Indian journalist P. Sainath reported the suicides of close to 150,000 Indian farmers from 1997 to 2005.

Have the Times and Washington Post and their leading journalists, salesfolk and apologists for this terrorism ever accepted moral responsibility, or even admitted that their economic analyses of the past two decades have been lethally wrong and at last have come home to roost? Say it! “Mo…mo…mowal…”

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