Violence as Spectacle in 26/11 Attacks

December 5, 2009

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Any spectacularly violent event lays down the rules for both, a collective response, as well as any attempt at analysis. The meta-structure for these rules typically includes polarization, taking sides, and extreme reactions. Violent acts (glorious, perverted, desperate, passionate, defensive or aggressive), separate, crystallize, draw lines and reinforce boundaries in the most effective way, and in the shortest time.

When a worldview or ideology starts to become fuzzy, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, nothing like an aggressive attack to harden boundaries once again, reinstate the centrifugal forces around which the group, mindset, perspective or belief coagulates, block leakages and enforce strict immigration rules at the gateways.

Drawing boundaries works both ways. At one level it creates divides and reinforces antagonism, and it also encourages loyalty, faith, or firm commitment to ideology. Eventually it has to contend with the level of Puritanism – or purity of intent – through which we negotiate the extremes or ideals dictating those choices. Even Gandhi’s brand of ahimsa – non-violence – complex as it was, worked as a mirror image, with clear boundaries and little scope for fuzziness. Consequently, its logic could not escape the all-pervasive totalitarianism that characterized his age and made it work in violent ways as well – through self-inflicted fasts, denial of physical needs and other bodily experiments (with “truth” or desire).

The function of political violence seems to be to make the immediate moment omnipotent, postpone reflection, and harden any threat of ideological or intellectual ambiguity. This inevitably results in recurrent, cyclical episodes (violence typically ‘spirals’) that use the most recent memory or event to justify the immediate act of retaliatory (its always retaliatory in the mind of the perpetuator) aggression and strict adherence to the official line. As George Bush put it in his address to the Congress right after the 9/11 attacks: “You are either with us or against us”[1].

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Not surprisingly, analysis in recent times have taken unambiguous sides, becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the official line as they get closer to the source of aggression (Osama Bin Laden or George Bush) or are so sharp and critical from within that they generate simultaneous suspicions on both sides of the fence (the modernist location of radical Islam as brilliantly argued by Faisal Devji[2] for example). This is not a sign of weakness in the analyses as much as an indication about the nature of the subject in question – acts of extreme violence leave little breathing space in their aftermath. As a result, discussions revolve around simplistic assumptions. Which type and level of violence is most appropriate as a response? A conventional war or “surgical strikes”? Or the ethics of facial profiling v. the risk of being attacked from inside are all carefully weighed.

Statesmen ponder on how to respond to ambiguous political agents and potential “terrorists”, or evaluate how much security is enough or too much. It is often about channeling the thirst for revenge into as acceptable a route as possible, claiming that it is all about preventing the spread of violence. In reality it ultimately becomes about pushing the envelope, bending freedoms inwards till it reaches breaking point.

This essay analyzes our own disturbing fascination with the kind of violence displayed in the Mumbai attacks and the audacity displayed by the militants. In order to do so, we first locate the Mumbai attacks in the broader context of violence in youth culture (in television, movies, games, and music), and then explore how such concepts as audacity, magic and charisma can help us understand not only where our fascination comes from, but also open venues for radically different kinds of responses.

Our account of the event is based on our experience of the Mumbai attacks of November 2008. As many Mumbaikars we followed the events through television, while being just minutes away from the scenes of action.

The Attack – Facts and Fictions

We believe in the truism that the ability to respond to the political crisis rests as much at the level of analyses as anything else – and that the analyses itself depends on an understanding of the complex way we construct the event and the sorts of thinking it embodies. The biggest analytical challenge we faced as the event unfolded was a blurring of boundaries between fantasy and reality. It was challenging since we wanted to resist driving a wedge between these two spaces to separate them.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks, like the 9/11 attacks seemed unreal, in fact impossible. The number of conspiracy theories that emerged after 9/11 testify to the fact that the official version is hard to believe. Similarly, how could a small group of militants, as well trained as they may have been, bring to a standstill a city that always kept functioning amidst all kinds of man-made and natural disasters? In fact, it seemed and still does seem implausible. We were forced to believe a story, which would otherwise have summarily been dismissed as being as unrealistic as a movie. This moment when something seemingly impossible actually happens -when reason is bluffed- has a magical quality to it. It is this magical quality that we are trying to get at.

As the attacks unfolded we were touched and confused by the emotional waves that overwhelmed the city –

‘ranging from incredulity, rage, cynicism, disbelief, shock and nervousness, to fear, sadness, numbness, hate, and the most disturbing of all, fascination. A morbid fascination for the ability of a handful of young guys to create mayhem in the city, shake Indian politics, and hypnotise the global media.

Surely, these were no ordinary kids. They were well trained, fully equipped and driven by vengeance. Thanks to GPS technology they could navigate an ancient sea route that connected two colonial cities partitioned by history. Thanks to their urbane appearance, they could sit down at Leopold café and enter the city’s best hotels without raising any suspicion.

They checked in at the Taj next to the general manager and transformed their quarters into a five-star control room. After brutally killing scores of tourists they cool-headedly recharged their AK-47 and rampaged the city. They killed Mumbai’s top cops and hijacked police cars, twice. Till the end they defied India’s best commandos. For a moment it seemed that the country’s entire army could not stop them…[3]

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At that time we were shocked and fascinated by the audacity of the shooters. That sense of fascination, accompanied by horror, was disconcerting. The event perhaps brought to the surface a well-entrenched fascination for extreme violence, which we were not fully conscious of. As good children of television, we had been fed early on with the very same type of images that we were now seeing on our screens again. But this time it was disturbingly close and real. Periodically, the events would send shockwaves through the Girgaum lane where we were staying at the time. Some attackers were shot at in Chowpatty, barely five minutes away. There were rumors that others had escaped and were at large in the neighbourhood making concerned neighbors feverishly plead to down shutters and double lock all doors.

This back and forth between the screen and the street created some kind of feedback loop, which was relayed and magnified by phone calls and text messages. False rumors, often sparked and subsequently denounced by TV hosts at the edge of nervous breakdowns, were spreading alternative waves of panic and relief. Mumbai felt like an old steamship, which had hit an iceberg and was now sinking in an ocean of confusion.

That reality exceeds fiction is well known, but this latest attack on Mumbai, just as 9/11, was so spectacularly orchestrated and enacted, so dramatically successful that not even the most inspired scriptwriter could have conceived it. The cinematic references went beyond the literal televised image transmission that dramatized the event. The doomsday theme is classic Hollywood. The attacks on New York had been anticipated in dozens of movies, such as “Armageddon” where the Chrysler Building is flattened by meteorites, ”Deep Impact” where the Statue of Liberty is toppled, and ”Godzilla” who destroys the Brooklyn Bridge, to mention only the blockbusters. But no one came as close to reality as the Hip Hop band “The Coup” who’s album cover, released shortly before the 9/11 attacks, showed the Twin Towers being blown up. The album was of course immediately taken out of the stores after the attacks.

The sheer dramatic exaggeration of the Mumbai attacks, with episodes such as the hijacking of the commissioner’s jeep, or when the crowd gathered around the Taj to cheer up the troops hours before the fighting was over, arguably gave them a Bollywoodesque dimension. This was evident in the alternatively grinning, nervous, laughing and scared faces of the onlookers who walked a thin line between being an aggressive unruly mob and hapless victims. Their schizophrenic response stemmed from the typical uncertainty of finding oneself living a moment that has only been lived before in cinematic, mediated reality.

Extreme violence also has the unique ability to hit not just its most direct target but also bystanders, forcing them to take side. Thanks to the ubiquity of modern information technologies, virtually everyone was witness to the extreme violence of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Quite clearly, the real target of the attacks was the global audience.

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The attacks were aimed at an audience hundreds of kilometers away; American families whose thanksgiving dinners were interrupted by the breaking news of the attack. Mumbai was at once a worthwhile target and a cheaper, less threatening option – an outsourced terror attack site – that became a studio relaying messages to the whole world – particularly America and Israel.

However, an equally important audience for the planners of the attack were the hundreds of thousands of youth, who could well get inspired to join in their ranks to become tragic “heroes” themselves.

The looping image of Ajmal Kasab, the 22 year old militant who was captured, was reminiscent of other sets of images. We could not help but morph that ubiquitous picture of him holding an AK-47 rifle at CST Station, with similar images of countless rampage scenes from movies like Scarface. How many t-shirts and posters have glorified the image of Al Pacino playing Tony Montana in Scarface, fearlessly meeting his death? And it is always the same image of him standing with his gun, killing enemies by the dozens, just like Kasab did at CST Station. Similarly, countless hip hop songs have created a mythology around Tony Montana, a fictional Cuban immigrant coming with nothing to Miami and becoming the king of the city one coke deal at a time. Again, reality beats fiction. How much more credible is this middle-aged tough-skinned Al Pacino posing as a ruthless killer compared to young Kasab, fresh from his village and disguised as a typical middle-class Mumbai teenager with his Versa t-shirt? Doesn’t it look like Kasab is merely imitating Tony Montana, when in fact he is the real killer?

Kasab and his comrades, wearing jeans and t-shirt, looking modern and brutal are prime material for teenage hero-worship. The horror that they unleashed transformed them into pure monstrosity and brought to life the most fantastic imagery otherwise only relegated to the world of the imagination, pushing the whole narrative into another realm. Their audacity was responsible for one of the most fantastic leap from fiction (the plot to rampage the city) to reality (it’s actualization), or inversely from reality (a peaceful and cosmopolitan city) to fiction (a city polarized on its political extremes and increasingly Islamophobic).

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How confusing it was to see the villain terrorist playing the role of the sacrificial hero, who fights the system to death. Kasab’s image is a dark version of young Che Guevara, rebellious, strong and audacious beyond belief. More than anything what will have turned these boys into charismatic heroes for some, is the epic transgressions surrounding the events – national, religious and class based – which seemed to be designed to attract attention in the manner of an astounding story, wonderfully told. If only because it will be used over and again by extremist militants to penetrate the minds of global audiences and enroll new recruits, we need to understand this story from the point of view of Kasab, or any of the young men who will follow his steps. In their eyes’ Kasab symbolizes courage, fearlessness and strength. Heroic qualities that all of us have grown to value so much that they can even blur the dividing line between villains and heroes.

The fact is that fantasies of radical transgression, including bombing and killing have always been part of a certain subversive imagination, which is particularly appealing to the youth. Youth across cultures respond passionately to a certain fictionalized understanding of reality, whether it is constructed by Hollywood movies or by charismatic political or religious leaders. The possibility of breaking through and becoming the actual hero of the story becomes an once-in-a-lifetime do-or-die (do-and-die) choice that overwhelms the perpetrator of the violence.

One of the most popular video games of late is Grand Theft Auto (Vice City). The player can steal cars and drive them around Miami at full speed, bumping into other cars and running over pedestrians. He can and even get off the car, shoot at the police and steal their cars and tanks to cause total mayhem in the city. When that happens the army comes and tests you to withstand the fight as long as possible.

This is pretty much what Kasab and his gang did in real life, and also what at a lesser degree dozens of American kids have done in so many tragic school-shootings. Our concern is not whether the fictions mentioned above have influenced the killers. But rather how many people will be inspired by the perceived heroism of Kasab and his colleagues. And further how such acts of extreme violence resonate to become icons of youth culture. It is surely painful and difficult for anyone who has been directly affected by such violence to conceive it. But from a distance (geographical or historic) the events can easily be turned upon themselves and used as symbols of something else altogether.

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Urban youth in Brazil casually use Bin Laden as a counter-cultural symbol, painting him on walls and invoking him in songs and slang. Shortly after the attacks even a computer virus named Bin Laden came out of Brazil. Closer home, the Nazi swastika (not the Hindu one) is regularly seen on t-shirts, and Hitler is revered as a great leader by some Hindu youth who do not actually consider themselves fanatics. This is of course shocking to Westerners who would not otherwise be disturbed by a teenager wearing a Mao Zetong pins.

Audacity, Magic and Charisma

charisma of violence

No matter what the ideological and religious quality of his indoctrination, the actual drama unleashed by Kasab and his gang, is, at one level, similar to the senseless school shootings in the US (and recently in Europe). It is after all, a certain kind of youthful energy that marks these horrific events. In our mind however, while the Mumbai attacks and school shooting are comparable in the form of violence they exult, they differ in important ways. The perpetrators of school-shootings never achieve “cult” status. There is hardly any heroism in their attacks since they only attack defenseless victims and generally kill themselves rather than die fighting. Moreover, the Mumbai attackers achieved a level of destruction that seems unimaginable and lasted for longer than anyone would have predicted. School-shootings are horrible but not implausible.

Psychological profiles of perpetrators of school shootings portray them as being often isolated, rejected by their peers and often victims of bullying. While there may be a subconscious political dimension in school-shootings (they always happen in a seemingly alienating middle-class suburban context), it is too vague to mobilize any kind of support. The Mumbai attackers however, will undoubtedly live on in the memory of many as revolutionary martyrs who died defending their political cause and/or religious mission.

However, the self-perception and drive of attackers in both cases may actually find its source in the same youthful passion, which can become the darkest expression of Horace’s Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – “seize the day and place no trust in tomorrow” – a complete abandonment in the moment that intoxicates, gives a high like nothing else and alters states of consciousness so much that the most unbelievable acts can emerge from there. As is becoming evident, it is our suggestion that youthful passion, actualizing the most audacious of ideas, can transform Kasabs into monsters or heroes.

The audacity of daring, coupled with the ability of achieving what seems impossible confers a charismatic aura to the author of the act. Here we mean charismatic in a Weberian sense: “…a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which one is ‘set apart’ from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” [4] Kasab and his comrades, most of whom were barely out of teenagehood, accomplished something that no one could have imagined.

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In the first hours of the attacks the feeling that prevailed was one of incredulity. We thought that the media were blowing up a story which was most probably a tragic fait divers of the sort that happens every week in a city of 14 million. We were even mocking our friends who went on automatic panic mode. However, as the event unfolded, the news turned more and more extraordinary and the doubt settled in. We started to simply believe what we were seeing on TV, hearing on the phone and on the street, in spite of the fact that it was inconceivable.

This moment, when one’s rationality is challenged and the mind flips into the realm of “belief”, has been described by Arjun Appadurai analyzing the reaction to Barack Obama’s election: “magic is the universal feeling that what we see and feel exceeds our knowledge, our understanding and our control.” [5] It was indeed an incredibly audacious move for a relatively unknown young senator to make his bid to the presidency to start with. This audacity carried him all the way to the breaking point at which his rise started to seriously threaten, and ultimately defeat the most formidable political organizations in the world: The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Republicans.

It is when grounded cynicism looses ground that “magic” happens. Everything shifted the moment it became clear that, contrary to the predictions of all serious political analysts, it could indeed be done. It is this magic moment that carried the Obama campaign all the way to a victory that ‘exceeded all expectations’.

The Mumbai attacks and 9/11 fit Arjun Appadurai’s definition of magic just as much as Barack Obama’s irresistible rise. The black magic of 9/11 hypnotized the world and instantaneously transformed Osama Bin Laden into a god-like figure and a horrendous monster. Even more perhaps than Barack Obama’s victorious campaign, the destruction of the Twin Towers by two hijacked planes defied understanding to the point that a large portion of the American population still refuses to believe the official version. The charisma gained by Bin Laden after allegedly master-planning the 9/11 will ensure a continuous influx of new recruits in the years to come.

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Conclusion

Audacity works at various levels. One is that of imagination. Allowing oneself to think about the unthinkable, dream about the impossible, or fantasize about the forbidden is a first kind of audacity that so many people deny themselves. We have all experienced the charisma of people who allow themselves to breach these boundaries. We call them anarchists, “free thinkers”, artists, poets, gurus or mystics. They have a special status in our societies, being placed at the same time on the margins and on a pedestal. The other level is the audacity of action, which Kasab personifies. This appeals particularly to the youth, who as we attempted to show, identify with the passion and bravery of such daring.

Audacity of imagination – that leads to transformative moments – must urgently be reclaimed with the same passion and determination, but after injecting it with a totally different set of values. Suppressing ideas because they are too audacious and falling back into a cynical form of realism will only give more leverage to polarizing forces. A middle-ground politics repressing the expression of youthful passion and imagination leads to more of the kind of destructive responses that we have become accustomed to everywhere, from America to India. The only way to respond to the audacity of unimaginable violence that divides and polarizes, is not by controlling freedoms within, nor by building firewalls between groups but by imagining and acting upon even more audacious attempts at uniting, blurring and bridging divides.

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[1] President George W. Bush, in an address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001.

[2] Landscapes of the Jihad: militancy, morality, modernity; Devji Faisal

Cornell University Press, 2005

[3] Rahul Srivastava & Matias Echanove, “Reclaiming Audacity”, The Hindu, December 7, 2008

[4] * Dr David Boje, Charisma lecture notes, Leadership & Society course at New Mexico State University College of Business Administration & Economics, Retrieved 28 July 2005. Via Wikipedia.org.

[5] Arjun Appadurai, “The Magic Ballot”, in The Immanent Frame (blog), November 7th, 2008. http://www.ssrc.org/blogs/immanent_frame/2008/11/07/the-magic-ballot/

This paper was presented at the Global City seminar, organized by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, August 2009. All pictures were taken at the Peace Wall, Marine Line, Mumbai, December 2009.

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