Recently I attended a function at the Shangri-La Hotel where a Very Important Person (VIP) was the chief guest.
Prior to getting there, I was unaware of the VIP’s expected participation, the function was promoted as a musical event. However, from the unusual security arrangements around the hotel I realised that the presence of an important person was anticipated.
The hotel premises were teeming with security personnel, some in military uniform, others in Western attire or the more casual safari suit type kit. If the gun battle at ‘O.K. Corral’ were to happen at this plush place, they were ready!
As is the case at most hotels since that dire April day, the car is searched in a perfunctory manner; open the boot, a quick peek in the car, an awkward sounding ‘welcome sir’, and on you go to the car park. Although, no further searches happened, even in the sprawling car park there were several groups of security persons, milling about. At the top of the escalator taking you to the hotel lobby is a ‘metal detector’, a scan, for which all metal devices, including coins have to be removed from your person.
Now it is six months from that harrowing occurrence in April, and it is only natural that the frisking is less thorough. It is not humanly possible to maintain an intense level of security, indefinitely. By its very definition, the hotel industry is bound to welcoming guests, striving for their custom. When your lifeblood is customer satisfaction, an intrusive security exercise, if allowed to degenerate to a mere crudity, could prove to be detrimental.
What then if another bomb attack like 21 April were to happen?
On this simple sounding question seems to hang the burden of security, not only of our nation, but perhaps all nations. What ‘if ‘, is a question, too terrible to contemplate.
It is true that in matters of such large scope and complexity, simple questions cannot be answered in a simple way; many things depend on many other things. Obviously, we carry no answer to a vexing challenge, which is on the list of worries perhaps of every country on this planet today.
It goes without saying that no country will willingly subject itself to an outrage like that of 21 April.
Fanatics, religious or otherwise, with no warning, without making any demands, could strike in that manner anywhere. We are now so globalised that the offenders need not be home-grown, or do not necessarily rely on large organisational support. Lone wolves or small groups, can easily slip under the radar to wreak havoc on unsuspecting communities.
But this does not mean we give up rationality. However, terrifying the problem of indiscriminate and sporadic terror may appear, history tells us that in the long run, larger, fairer and better run systems will eventually triumph over evil.
A defining feature of our system of governance is its democratic nature, symbolised most visibly by the periodic elections. On the 16 November, we will be going again to the polls, to elect a new President. With that horrific April day in mind, many of the candidates have made national security a primary issue of their campaign. There is no argument against it, like fresh air, food, water, security is a catch phrase that none dares to discount.
Apart from offering former soldiers as the answer, no candidate has provided a comprehensive plan of security. They are not to be blamed, the nature and direction of terrorist threats keep evolving, requiring new ways of containment; so far we have seen hijackings, remote control bombs, suicide bombers, cyber-attacks, fake news (with economic targets); the methods of terror are infinitely varied.
While our counter measures may vary depending on the nature of the threat, historically, there are essential conditions, without which no country can effectively protect itself.
One incontrovertible lesson of history is the crucial importance of economic strength when meeting a threat. Poor nations cannot sustain a long drawn campaign. The economic consequences of 21 April were devastating for this country. Priority here should be the strengthening of the economy, not the other way around.
As an example, say a company has a monthly income of Rs. 1,000. One day there is a bomb in the vicinity of its office which damages it, injuring a few employees. Its directors in a state of panic decide to invest Rs. 500 of that on a monthly basis on security guards, security advisers, sniffer dogs, metal detectors, pilot cars for its directors, etc. By overreacting to one challenge, the company has doomed itself.
Even super powers are not immune to the realities of economics. The Soviet Union, with its inefficient economic model, could not sustain the arms race its rivalry with America forced on it, leading to the eventual disintegration of the Communist giant. One time, Great Britain commanded a world-wide empire. The two wrenching World Wars exhausted Great Britain so, that an empire was no longer feasible. Sometimes battles are won, only to lose the war!
It is also self-evident that the safest countries in the world today are not the most policed. On the contrary, the safest by any reckoning, are counties like Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Canada, Australia; countries with a strong rule of law; liberal, democratic, transparent and prosperous. In some of these countries, you hardly see a policeman.
On the other hand, we have heavily policed countries like Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar; carrying huge military budgets, a ubiquitous secret police with police informants under every bush as it were, but there is scant safety and little happiness. There is a lot of military pomp and pageantry, amounting to puffery concealing their inner corruption, while signally failing to provide security to its citizens. Their economies are among the under-performers of the world.
Until 21 April, for nearly 10 years, Sri Lanka was a relatively safe country with no reported terrorist activity. On that fateful day a handful of deluded terrorists carried out heinous bomb attacks taking the lives of hundreds. Was this an isolated incident or is there evidence to suggest a larger scheme afoot?
These are matters for our decision makers, who we assume are intelligent and well meaning. If there is a larger threat, evidence must be gathered, arrests made, the accused persons brought before the law.
On the other hand, if 21 April was an isolated incident, the approach must be different; social, political and educational institutions must endeavour to bring other marginalised persons to the mainstream. Whatever various faiths may offer after-life, it is the social, educational and political institutions that can provide a better life, in this life. The populace must have confidence in the system, see a good life ahead for them. When they don’t see that, some may begin to think the hereafter offers better prospects!
If there is no lurking terrorist threat, the high security efforts we see around us are like a blind man looking for a black cat in a dark room, when there is no cat there! All the money spent on the gigantic endeavour could be a waste. Here again, we can only hope that the country’s’ decision makers know what they are doing.
We see that our so called leaders have extraordinary levels of security. Hundreds of able bodied men, with various weapons, numerous vehicles, security devices and even ambulances in case of an emergency, are working round the clock to protect them (it is worth noting that all the contraptions, from weapons, vehicles and perhaps even the uniforms are foreign made, and imported)
As to where the threat lies is not clear, we can only surmise from the incredible fuss around the leaders, that there is a live danger. It is a fact that for about two decades now, not a single important leader has come to harm (from terrorists). Either our leaders are well protected, or there is no real threat (like in Europe, where many leaders regularly take public transport)
Here, we witness several peculiarities of the Sri Lankan power mindset. More than a real apprehension of terrorism, it is the glamour of bodyguards that appeals. Any outing by a leader becomes an “event”; the bodyguards clear a path through the traffic and ensures an arrival with impact.
Often, the man himself lacks aura, is of dubious reputation and doubtful stature. The frenetic exercise is a pantomime that mocks its very meaning, an attempt at conferring a dignity sorely lacking in the person. It is a peculiar tragedy of our politics that we have consistently produced leaders, who should not be there; holders of office, who should not be holding them, and men exercising powers they are not equipped to handle. For the truth of this, we need to only look at a relevant statistic, as a country, on every score, we are among the poorly performing countries.
In our popular logic, if a man is purported to be under threat, surely his wife and children also deserve security from the State. There is family cohesion, even when claiming danger; all for one, one for all!
Another peculiarly Sri Lankan concept of leadership is the “eternal” nature of a man’s perceived competence. To understand this strange perception, we need to look at countries where such a mentality does not operate.
During World War 2 Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery won fame overcoming German Army’s formidable Africa Corp (led earlier with spectacular success by General Erwin Romell, referred to admiringly as the desert fox) in North Africa. Montgomery was the most celebrated British soldier in World War 2. The Germans he bested on the battlefield were superlative soldiers, with fearsome capabilities, while Erwin Rommel was a star class general.
Montgomery’s obvious prowess notwithstanding, Britain did not call on him when it faced subsequent military challenges after the World War, such as the Suez crisis in 1956 or the Malay insurrection. He had retired with honours and there were other soldiers to rise to the new challenges.
More recently, when US President George Bush Snr waged war on the Iraqi army (1991) to liberate Kuwait, the coalition forces were led by the tough American General Norman Schwarzkopf. He thrashed the Iraqi army. A few years later, in 2003, under George Bush Jnr (after 9/11) America was at war with Iraq again. This time they were led by younger generals. Schwarzkopf had retired and probably watched the war unfold on CNN, like all other Americans.
These are countries that have fought many wars, some of global scale; winning some and losing some. Even in the technology of war, they are in the trillion-dollar league, unlike our ‘galkatas’ industry. For them the vicissitudes of war are not something new, they are heirs to a history that enables them to grasp the manifold dimensions of war, instinctively.
In Sri Lanka this is sadly not the case. When a war (how many have we fought?) is won, all honours are heaped on the General and thereafter, in perpetuity, he is the only soldier we know. There is no appreciation of the complex processes of war, the valuable contributions of lesser known participants, and above all, the intricacies of human conflict in which the outcome is determined by multiple factors.
It is easier for our simple minds to equate victory with just one man, who happens to be commanding at the time. Whenever there is a crisis thereafter, whether it be a war, intelligence gathering or even reorganising the defence establishment, there is no better man than our hero. Those who have since risen in rank, trained in new methods or have different ideas, amount to little, compared to the permanent expert.
This not a mentality limited to military matters, in nearly every aspect, the perception of an achievement (perceived through native eyes… he is learned, super intelligent, very capable so on) raises the man to deity status, forever, wise! Looking at the realities prevailing in the country, an objective appraiser will be baffled by the high praise.
Coming back to the well- guarded musical, I wondered which security expert will be brave enough, or foolhardy enough, to tell the VIP that the so-called threat to his person is absurdly magnified, in fact, non-existent, and that all this show of arms is just juvenile horseplay.
If there is no threat as serious as the show warrants, obviously the security advisers’ career and that of many others is on shaky ground. The VIP too will not be pleased. Having led an exalted life for many years, he has now lost the common touch.