An attack occurs at the Taj Palace Hotel and Tower, The Trident Oberoi, the Nariman House and other locations in Mumbai. With all the cell phones, blackberries, twitter links, local and national news reporters, local, national, and regional bloggers, bystanders, and government spokespeople and police and military around, it would seem like a no-brainer for a good solid reporting event. And it was – as long as you weren’t getting your news from American news organizations, or British news organizations. As for the Israeli news organizations, it was an opportunity to affirm that Israeli attitudes towards little brown people haven’t changed since the days when the Ethiopian Jews went to Israel.
First, there’s a problem with baggage and loyalty. Everyone in the American press knows what it is they advocated, cheerled, and pushed for after September 11th. We cheered our cowboy with the bullhorn in the American press, didn’t we? And stood in solidarity with him as he led the country on a rampage, as much against our own core values as against any perpetrators. The New York Times runs editorials decrying wars or torture, but supports convictions in federal court in New York based in part on torture, and is a universal mouthpiece for constant attention to, and the advocates of, perpetual war against enemies or alleged enemies in a widening circle always based in the Middle East. True to form, while Somini Sengupta is clearly saying in print that “…the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and the Oberoi, where most of the killing took place, partly in ruins,” the pictures for three days are all of the Nariman House, where the important casualties took place, one is left to assume.
And the Editorial Page, while urging restraint, and praising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for his forbearance, lists the most important problems as “Most of all, who is to blame and who should pay the price for such cruelty?”, “And we fear it will divert even more of Pakistan’s attention and troops away from fighting extremists on its western border with Afghanistan.”, and “The Bush administration must use all of its influence to ensure that India’s leaders recognize these dangers.” (taken in no particular order).
Really? Who is to blame and who should pay the price? That cowboy mentality strikes again. While there is undoubtedly someone to blame who should be held accountable, the Americans after September 11th raised forced confessions, interrogations, and outright retribution to an art form. And the concentration of Pakistan’s attention on America’s problems is hardly the first concern of the government of India, which must worry about everything from preventing the next attack, to dealing with the upsurge in political demagoguery, to the very real threat of communal violence in the aftermath, while doing all the things Americans themselves do, like funerals for the dead, visiting the injured, and seeking “closure”. As for the idea that the Bush administration can give advice to anyone on how to properly respond to a major terrorist attack, the only advice I can think of would be, “Don’t make the same mistakes we did,” an impossibility, given that they haven’t yet conceded that they made mistakes in the last 8 years.
Likewise, the British press, BBC being an example, knows their baggage and the loyalties, and the need in Britain to focus on the world wide recruitment powers alleged to al Qaeda, if only as a foil to deflect attention from rumors of British citizens among the attackers. But the British reaction spotlights a problem evident in America and Britain, and many other places in the day and age of the professional media pundit, and perpetual expert. The first mistake is that experts need to be expert on that on which they comment. If your only terror model is Islamist terror and al Qaeda, then you miss the cross-border aspects of terror in this case. As pointed out in the Indian press, these were not Islamists, they brought liquor to consume during their siege. The group they are alleged to be affiliated with, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is known for infiltration into Kashmir, an issue that has nationalist and separatist motives as well as religious ones. And coordination is not an automatic indicator of al Qaeda, any more than military training is an automatic indicator of government support.
The problem with the coverage, then, is just as firmly rooted in the prejudices of others (and logical fallacies – just because blaming Pakistan is a frequent knee jerk reaction doesn’t mean that it is a knee-jerk to say so when terrorists arrive by boat from Karachi), instead of the prejudices of Indians, and most of all, the failure to pay attention all of the time. Had the so-called “terrorist experts” paid attention from last November to the present when the governmental situation in Pakistan was changing, they’d have understood the dynamics of the initial move by Yousef Gillani to assent to the demand that the ISI Chief, General Pasha, visit India, and the subsequent backing off. In it, and the reaction of Asif Ali Zardari appearing on Indian TV to offer cooperation, should have tempered their insistence that the allegations of the attack originating on Pakistani soil were somehow ill thought out or automatic reactions. Instead, it was the expert’s insistence that al Qaeda be considered that seemed to be the real knee-jerk. Politics, terrorism, and international affairs in Central and South Asia are complicated. But complicated does not mean impossible, one just needs to pay attention, and to empathize with each party when regarding their point of view, not because you necessarily agree, but so you will understand. Treating the region as a faraway place that you study up on for a few hours before going on TV to render your usual terrorist expert answers is no substitute for spending a few minutes, or a few hours, a day getting to know the players.
Finally, there is a healthy dose of prejudice that remains in the attitudes of the press in Europe and America and in Israel. Israeli press castigated the Indians for not accepting Israeli commandos or their advice, especially, if not completely focused on, the siege at the Nariman House. Saying nothing of the attitude that somehow foreign deaths were more important than Indian deaths, the overwhelming majority of the people killed were innocent Indians, not innocent Israelis, and the life of a bhel puri wala is not less of a life than that of an Israeli. The attitude that has infused much of the reporting of Israel’s troubles with its neighbors and with terrorists has a nasty stink when transported to the streets of Mumbai. Might want to find out about India, before you offer “honored gentile” status to an Indian woman named Sandra Samuel. Start with, “What kind of name is Sandra Samuel?”
Part of this, when it comes to American media, is the result of cost cutting and priorities that cut foreign correspondence staffs. This was evident in spades during the Tibetan riots last summer, when all the reporters for many respected journals were either in Beijing or Shanghai, and all their contacts in Tibet were ethnic Han Chinese. Part of it is a lack of interest in history by corporate press. If it isn’t in the database, it doesn’t exist. And part of it is just plain lack of interest, until the moment after you need to know. Who knew that Lashkar-e-Taiba had a long history totally predating al Qaeda focused on attacks against India over Kashmir? Who knew that the wrangling in the Pakistani government over control of the ISI was a critical issue in the transition from Musharraf’s military government to the new civilian one? Who knew that Prime Minister Singh’s government was adamantly opposed to the September 11th response, it had been a part of the government platform to suspend the civil liberties crimping Prevention of Terrorism Act (the Indian “equivalent” of the American PATRIOT act or the British Terrorsm Act) from the time it took office? Who knew that the Indian military could be professional without help from Americans, Europeans, or Israelis? Who knew these things?
Well, to begin with, all the Indian and Pakistani press knew. And this is the Internet Age. American, British, and Israeli readers who really want to know these things can get on the Internet, and find well written, English language, journalism written by the people who knew. And maybe that’s the real reason American media are losing their audience, because they don’t read their colleagues when it’s their colleagues who know.
Credit: Somini Sengupta’s article, and the New York Times editorial referenced appear in the December 1 edition of the Times. BBC reports referenced were those played on NPR during the Mumbai attacks, the remarks in the Israeli press were various, mostly Ha’aretz. Credit in forming many ideas has to cite Indranil Banerjie’s forthcoming article in Current, “Dealing with Pakistan, Outrage Cannot Help”.