Mumbai, India's maximum metropolis, has been hit by terrorist attacks eight times since 2000, the latest arriving today when unknown killers set off three bombs in what appeared to be coordinated attacks. The explosions were timed to go off in crowded places during the evening rush hour, ensuring that a large number of innocent people would be killed or maimed. Early Indian media reports put the number killed at 21, the number of wounded at more than 100.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for attacks, but if events follow true to form, this latest outrage will be traced back to politicized Muslim extremists in neighboring Pakistan or in India, itself.
This is the biggest terrorist attack in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) since Islamic fanatics assaulted two luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center and the central train station in November 2008, killing more than 160 innocents. One begins to run out of words when contemplating yet another assault on civilians in this vibrant, gritty, sprawling, difficult, exciting city that has the grave misfortune to be located on a hard-to-defend seafront not far from Pakistan. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Mexican drug cartels have also employed terror tactics, and are just as culpable.
This time, travelers didn't appear to be primary targets, as they were in the attacks on 5-star hotels filled with Indian and international visitors in 2008. This time, it was the hard-working, long-suffering people of Mumbai who were targeted.
Pundits and police will pick over the story as events continue to unfold. There will be an investigation, perhaps a commission, statements of regret. U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Mumbai last year and stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tower, one of the hotels set on fire and raked with gunshots in 2008, has already exorssed solidarity with India. Indian security, which was very visibly ramped-up when I visited Mumbai in November 2009, has again proved insufficent.
Should travelers stay away from India, or at least Mumbai? Some, inevitably, will stay away. I put off my visit for nearly a year out of security concerns, but when I did go, I was glad I went. Everyone has to decide for himself.
What is to be done? Security officials can't turn every marketplace, hotel and airport into a fortress, but smarter security is sorely needed. Some will argue that the best way to fight terrorism is to eliminate its root causes, one of which is poverty. Yet, many of not most of the terrorists in the Sept. 11, 2001, horrors in the United States were well-educated and middle class. Fanaticism, while fed by poverty, is not created by poverty alone.
Somehow, the principle has got to sink-in that the end - heaven? a global caliphate? simple revenge for perceived wrongs? - does not justify the means - jihad, bloodshed, heartlessness toward 'the other'.
And we, as travelers, have got to use prudent common sense - and persevere. The worst thing in the world, and for the world, would be to abandon it.