Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Is our society paranoid?

Recently, I had the unwelcome experience of waiting seven hours for a train in the Kanpur station. Initially the announcement said that the train was delayed by 4 hours. It did not make sense to me to go back to IIT and then come back as the one way journey from the station to IIT would have taken me about an hour. Plus, it was such a nice winter morning that I did not feel like leaving the station. It was during this wait that I noticed something that I had never ever given much attention to. It shocked me a little but it set me thinking about its implication.
Sitting on a bench on the platform, I was reading a novel and I occasionally gave attention to the announcements broadcast on the loudspeaker. It was usually that this train is on such platform and that train has been delayed by so many hours. But there was also this announcement that I am sure all of us have heard on the station. It warned the passengers to be wary of unclaimed bags, suitcases, toys, etc as it could be a 'bomb'. The first time I heard it, I did not react much. But then I noticed that this announcement was broadcast with an alarming regularity. You would hear it every fifteen minutes!
I tried to recall the last time I had heard that a 'lawaris' baggage had exploded or had been recognized to be a bomb. Remarkably, I could not think of any case at all. Is the reason for this lack of such bombings the continuous broadcast of warnings hurled at people in various forms (loudspeakers, billboards, TV ads, etc) or is there really no necessity for such a measure? Logically, this method of bombing would be very effective in our railway stations as there are usually no security checks nor is any effective policing done on the platform. I had always wondered at how easy it would be for a terrorist to attack at the New Delhi railway station. Any person could walk into the station and generally start shooting people around. The fact that these incidents did not happen was something that I had attributed to the effective Intelligence our protectors have. But that day on the station I wondered whether I was just being paranoid when thinking about such possibilities as a terrorist attack on the station...
Terrorism is a very real threat and I cannot call the terrorist attacks that have happened in the past - the attack on the parliament, the Red Fort incident - as state conspiracy to keep the populace paranoid and thankful for effective policing.
But I still wonder at the number of terrorist activities. Why aren't there more of these or at least more attempts (not that I am wishing for one). Comparatively, crime, in general, has always been at a very high level in India. Crime is NOT under control. But terrorism (outside of Kashmir) is! Perhaps, the objective of the terrorists is different. Perhaps, they want to wage their war in J&K and not anywhere else as that is the land that they want to 'liberate'.
So, is our society unnecessarily paranoid? The reason I ask this question is because of the fact that there is reason to believe that the American society is unnecessarily paranoid. Read Naom Chomsky's writing if you do not believe me ('Understanding power' is a good book to start off with). Are we being manipulated by the government into a false sense of insecurity that is being used by political parties to win elections? These doubts are not unfounded as the BJP does use the Muslim-paranoia and Pakistan-paranoia in their campaigns and manifestos.
I suppose there is a difference between a general sense of paranoia and a fear of a specific group of individuals/community/country. A general sense of paranoia is warranted by the high crime rate in the country. But a paranoia that a section of the society identified by a common religion will do harm is senseless.
A fear of terrorism is not unwarranted but are we overly afraid? If we are, is that a good thing as in it acts as a deterrent to terrorism or is it bad as it is needless and just doesn't allow us to be feel safe and thus, happy?


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