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The penalty of preventing terror

During the build up to Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year, caught up among the charges of corruption and mis-management, were many reports warning of a terror strike during the event. At the end of incident-free Games, security officials were universally hailed for its safe conduct.

Little attention was paid to the fact that this was done by bringing the city of Delhi to a stand-still: schools and colleges were closed, other public events were disallowed, and many major roads were closed to the public for the duration. Businesses suffered and attendance in offices was low. The drill of bringing the city to a halt was repeated during President Obama's visit to Mumbai last year.

In the last few years, events involving foreigners, or even Indian dignitaries in some cases, are deemed so important from the security angle that they end up bringing everything else in that city to a stop. With the media focused on the event, not much attention is paid to disruption caused to socio-economic activity outside the event. Having demonstrably succeeded in preventing terror strikes, the model sets a wrong precedent to be followed for subsequent events. Even if these security measures are indubitably effective, a closer scrutiny would reveal that they are rather inefficient.


Real success? The state cannot claim victory over preventing terror
attacks if the routine life of the city is brought to a stand still


The efficiency of security cannot be calculated only in terms of bomb blasts prevented. There is a penalty of preventing terror. The human and economic costs of ensuring security must form part of the final balance-sheet. Because promises that terrorism risk will be completely eliminated, will receive much greater public support, a democratic government is often tempted to pursue the unrealistic goal of eliminating terror; at times nearly killing the patient to end the disease. However, by paying a frighteningly high 'certainty premium' for eliminating terror strikes than is warranted by the extent of a realistic risk reduction, we run an even bigger danger: of letting government off the hook. By throwing in enough security personnel, bringing all routine life to a halt -- and thereby claiming success in preventing terror attacks during important events -- government can avoid formulating a cogent anti-terror policy. Terrorism risks are highly imprecise and difficult to predict.

We need anti-terror policy measures that are designed to significantly reduce terrorism risk without imposing significant social and economic costs. A coordinated intelligence gathering operation which produces a constantly evolving series of threat analysis and vulnerability studies has to underpin this policy. This should ideally lead to a scalable threat index, with Standard Operating Procedures in place to react to each threat level. A concerted effort to back up targeted intelligence with modern policing and quicker reaction capabilities will reduce terrorism risks. 

Many of these measures will impose human and economic costs. If we were to have a situation in which no economic or social costs are imposed, then the terrorism risks would be enormous. In much the same way, completely eliminating the terrorism risk would require that we  abandon many of the activities. The optimal outcome has to be a trade-off between these two concerns.

It must strike a balance between reducing terrorism risk and the attendant social and economic costs. Preventing a terror strike at any cost is not the same as defeating terror. While a terror strike is an obvious weapon in the terrorist's arsenal, the larger aim of the terrorist is to disrupt the normal life of the citizens of the country. If our normal routine has been stalled due to threat of terror, the individual terrorist may have been defeated but terrorism would have still won the battle.

Our anti-terrorism policies, therefore, should be guided by best estimates of the terrorism risk, and should recognise that the optimal policy must involve certain trade-offs. Striking the right balance between security and normalcy must remain the guiding principle for our policymakers.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati- The Indian National Interest Review.

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