November 30, 2008

Darkness at Noon

I had a dream last night... er ... a nightmare, to be precise.

I am in a suite on the 5th floor of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, India. My cousin Nisha, 7 years and counting, is sitting on my lap, blabbering some nonsense about how mean her classmate Jane has been to her. Then she stands up, grows tall by a few feet, and starts to show me the latest dance move that she had learnt. All of a sudden, there is a flash of light and a loud explosion just outside the door. Nisha's dress catches fire in a corner. She starts screaming for her life as the fire slowly engulfs her. I sit there paralyzed with fear and horror, watching my cousin being reduced to a heap of ash. Why am I unable to help? Why don't my feet and hands move?

I wake up, and it's life as usual.1

My life did change dramatically in the aftermath of 9/11. Try as I may, I cannot erase or push back the sight of the Twin Towers being reduced to a cloud of dust and rubble, and people running and screaming on the streets of New York. Ever since, I have developed this nasty habit of picturing myself, my daughter, wife, or someone near and dear to me, being one of the victims of this senseless terror that has become part of our life. It becomes personal then. Very personal. Not just another point lost in history and statistics.

With my morning cup of coffee in my hand, I walk towards my office on the 103rd floor of One World Trade Center. I am wondering if I had made the right choice in giving up my tenured faculty position at the University of Minnesota, and accepting the offer from Cantor Fitzgerald to be their VP, Financial Engineering. I am thinking of my wife and daughter, who had bid me farewell at the airport a week ago. I am thinking about the new synthetic option on the index futures that I have been asked to design. Then, there is this ball of fire, about the size of an airplane, rolling through the window towards me. It devours everything on its way — Risk Manager Mitch, the smiling assassin, and Ashley, his chirpy assistant; the new laser printer against the pillar; Jane, 24, my secretary... Why are my eyes fogging in this scorching heat?

It's midnight, Day 1. I am in the gymnasium of School Number One in the town of Beslan, North Ossetia-Alania, Russia. My wife is standing next to me, confronted by a Shahidka, her face hidden behind a black mask. She is mouthing some nonsense about how her Hamas brother's great grandfather had lost his olive farm to a Jewish settler in Israel. My eyes are on Samantha, 5, and Karl, 7, huddled in a corner of the room. There is this other guy pointing an AK-47 at their frightened faces. I plead with my tormentor to let them go, promising everything that I can to help her brother repossess the olive farm that I don't have. To no avail. Bang, bang! Samantha's and Karl's brains spill out in a mass of gray and red. Samantha's brain that may have one day offered a more rigorous proof of Fermat's last theorem. Karl's brain that may have one day invented a new process to synthesize stem cells in a test tube. Lost to humanity for ever. I am at peace, certain that I will not live to be haunted in my dreams by their dying faces, frozen in fear.

I am waiting for Tasneem outside her school, so I could share the lunch hour with her. Here, at the school, we don't need to worry too much about the prying eyes and hands, hell-bent on catching us in forbidden contact. Not to be bothered with algebra, physics, and all that mundane stuff, I am working on an elaborate scheme to take Tasneem secretly to the movie hall that is playing the latest Sharukh Khan movie. I know that she adores Sharukh with utter disregard for my jealous protests, but what the heck, he is celluloid, and I am real. It's worth the risk. There she is, stepping out of her class. She knows where I will be standing, and her face melts into a smile, the most beautiful smile on the earth. And, then, her face melts again, literally. Pieces of flesh start dropping off. A couple of bearded men are hovering over her, waving a bottle and shouting, "Burn, you bitch, burn in hell! How dare you defy the word of our God Almighty?" "Taliban! Take cover, they have acid," someone screams, and everyone around me is scrambling to take cover. I think it must be darkness at noon for Tasneem.

Early in my lessons in game theory, I learnt that we must begin with the payoff matrix to solve a game. A complete understanding and evaluation of the intent and incentives of the opponents is a sine qua non. Who are they, and what motivates their action, their strategy? Here is this bunch of twenty-somethings, entering a coffee shop or a school, and mowing down tens of hundreds of strangers, pregnant women, and little children, face to face? Are they driven by a deeply ingrained sense of persecution, real or perceived? Who brought them here? Who gave them arms? What did the transporters, the trainers, and the arms suppliers get in return? How did these poor blokes who are supposed to be on a subsistence living, find a way to pay the middle men off? Are they the opponents, or are they just puppets in the hands of far away masters? What motivates the puppet masters? What motivates Hezbollah, Lakshar e-Taiba, Indian Mujahadeen, Jemaah Islamiyah, Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei...?

A command from a dead man, one and one-half millenium ago:

They desire that you should disbelieve as they have disbelieved, so that you might be (all) alike; therefore take not from among them friends until they fly (their homes) in Allah's way; but if they turn back, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them, and take not from among them a friend or a helper. [Koran 4.89]

A compliance from the Preamble to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran:

In the formation and equipping of the country's defence forces, due attention must be paid to faith and ideology as the basic criteria. Accordingly, the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are to be organized in conformity with this goal, and they will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God's way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world (this is in accordance with the Koranic verse "Prepare against them whatever force you are able to muster, and strings of horses, striking fear into the enemy of God and your enemy, and others besides them" [8:60]). [emphasis mine]

An execution in Mumbai, India:

Piles of bodies were found yesterday after commandos stormed the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the last of three buildings that terrorists had occupied in the city. Three terrorists were killed in the battle...

The official death toll stands at 174, but authorities acknowledge that scores of bodies have not been included in the total. At least 22 of the dead are not Indian nationals, including a Briton, five US citizens and six Israelis. At least 295 people have been injured. Of those, 23 are foreigners, including several Britons.

A final death toll will not emerge until the end of operations to ensure the hotel rooms and corridors are cleared of booby traps. However, S Jadhav, from Mumbai's disaster management unit, predicted the figure would approach 300.

Anger begins to swell in my throat and spreads all over me. How to trash this hateful ideology into the ash heap of history? What can I do to help? If a centuries old pen could drive an army of thousands towards murder and mayhem, will a keyboard suffice to awaken the other billions to this virus of terror that threatens to overwhelm the world as we know it?

How many Nishas, Mitchells, Tasneems, Samanthas, and Karls, before this madness ends? Will they cease and desist, if the wealth of India were distributed equally between the Hindus and Muslims? Perhaps, but only after Kashmir is "liberated". No, not enough, may be after Hyderabad, and Lucknow, too, are ceded to them. Surely, they'll stop when Israel yields a Palestinian Homeland and Jerusalem to the Arabs? May we add Chechnya as an added bonus? How about Xinjiang, Southern Thailand, and Philippines? Only if the whole world accepted Shariat as the law of the land?

Then again, another Tasneem may dare to go to school, only to have Sulfuric Acid thrown at her face. Is it not true that 72 virgins are always waiting in the heaven for the jihadis?

1 My nightmare was possibly caused by a personal communication from a friend who lost his cousin in the Mumbai terrorist attack on 11/26.

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