The attack in India was not the test of Barack Obama's mettle that Joseph Biden has predicted. But it was a test. The terrorists were communicating who they are and what they want. Obama, like the rest of us, can choose to understand - or we can wrap ourselves in comforting illusions.
The Times of India instructed its readers: "Terrorists have no religion." That's a lovely sentiment but it bears no relationship to reality. In Mumbai - as in London, Madrid, Bali, New York, Jerusalem and so many other places - the slaughter was carried out by men who regarded themselves as jihadis, holy warriors, doing Allah's will. Aijaz Zaka Syed, a columnist for the Dubai-based Khaleej Times, faces this fact: "How many innocents have to die in the name of Islam," he asked, "before Muslim leaders and countries take effective action to deal with the nuts, who are out to destroy us all with their nihilistic cult?"
As media analyst Tom Gross points out, the Times of London, the BBC, Sky News, and other European news outlets assiduously avoided calling those who murdered unarmed men, women, and children "terrorists." The harshest term they could manage was "militants." Reuters and the Guardian, echoing Al-Jazeera, used the even more nonjudgmental term: "gunmen." And as Mark Steyn notes, in some cases, they were merely "suspected gunmen" -- even those photographed carrying rifles.
On American television news programs, experts said the Mumbai attacks stemmed from the dispute over Kashmir. Except for the torture and murders carried out at the Jewish community center - those were said to be linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and Japanese were presumably shot dead in response to a variety of other grievances.
But it is instructive that the terrorists in Mumbai did not take hostages as bargaining chips. Their mission was mass murder, not a new round of negotiations. The goal of militant jihadis is not dialogue; it's the defeat of their enemies, including Hindus, Jews, Christians and any Muslims who disobey them or get in the way. In other words: This war is not, at base, about grievances, plentiful as those may be in the Muslim world. And addressing grievances will not end the war.
But, one might argue, if such issues as Kashmir and Palestine could be resolved, surely that would remove fuel from the fire. Then, Lashkar-e-Taiba (the group apparently behind the carnage in Mumbai) and al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran's mullahs would find fewer angry young Muslim men susceptible to being radicalized and recruited for terrorist missions.
Maybe. But if terrorist acts prompt Indians, Israelis, Americans and others to move such issues to the top of the pile - above, say, the genocide of Black Muslims (by Arab Muslims) in Darfur - and to make significant concessions to resolve them, that will lead to the conclusion that terrorism succeeds. And successful movements never have difficulty attracting adherents.
What's more, there still would be millions of impoverished and frustrated young Muslim men from Casablanca to Cairo to Gaza to Karachi who would be susceptible to an ideology that tells them they deserve to rule, and that whatever they lack has been taken from them by infidels whom they are permitted -- indeed encouraged -- to kill.
It is relevant to ask why Mumbai was a target, and why now? Mumbai, also known as Bombay, is India's financial capital, its most multi-religious city, and home to "Bollywood" - which produces movies featuring beautiful women, exuberant singing, and often provocative dancing. All of the above infuriate Islamists.
Further, the U.S. has been putting pressure on Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, to move aggressively against al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's lawless northwest provinces. Inciting tension between Pakistan and India makes it more difficult for Zadari to move troops from the border with India to the border with Afghanistan.
One hopes that President-Elect Obama is acutely aware that Islamist terrorists around the world are working on ways to do in America what was done in India. Hoping they don't manage it is not a policy. Planning to prosecute the perpetrators after the fact is a policy - a ludicrously ineffective one when dealing with terrorists embarking on suicide missions.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that the assault on Mumbai raises "huge questions about how the world addresses violent extremism." Actually, it answers those questions. It should be more obvious than ever that Islamist terrorists - or even just "violent extremists"- must be fought. That requires such ungentlemanly tactics as aggressive surveillance and rigorous interrogations. We either take the fight to the terrorists or we wait for the terrorists to bring the fight to us - as they did in Mumbai. There's no third option.
The Times of India editorial I quoted above was titled "It's War." Yes, it is - a global war, one that began long before September 11, 2001, and whose end is nowhere in sight. What's puzzling is how that can still come as news to so many people in India, Europe, and America.