Homeland Security

Terrorism as a Cancer: Does this Metaphor Work for India?
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Issue Vol. 33.4 Oct-Dec 2018 | Date : 09 Feb , 2019

Though primarily a medical term, the word ‘cancer’ is increasingly being applied to ideas associated with ‘terrorism’. It is generally understood that cancer is triggered by conditions that exist both within the biological systems endemic to the host and those outside the biological systems, in the environment of the host. Terrorism experienced in India is intense, but its indigenous component is relatively small. It is exported to India mostly from Pakistan and some from elsewhere. At a minimum, the medical allegory calls for the management of cancer-causing factors that are located in Pakistan, suggesting an invasive military surgical operation in Pakistani territory. As such, the medical metaphor of cancer to describe terrorism has rather limited value in terms of choosing non-military, communal, socio-political, socio-economic or systemic treatment strategies that are directed towards meeting the aspirations, goals and social welfare of citizens and constituencies.

In 2016, India was the third largest target of terrorism, after Iraq and Afghanistan but before Pakistan…

Though primarily a medical term, the word ‘cancer’ is increasingly being applied to ideas associated with ‘terrorism’. It is generally understood that cancer is triggered by conditions that exist both within the biological systems endemic to the host and those outside the biological systems, in the environment of the host. Terrorism experienced in India is intense, but its indigenous component is relatively small. It is exported to India mostly from Pakistan and some from elsewhere. At a minimum, the medical allegory calls for the management of cancer-causing factors that are located in Pakistan, suggesting an invasive military surgical operation in Pakistani territory. As such, the medical metaphor of cancer to describe terrorism has rather limited value in terms of choosing non-military, communal, socio-political, socio-economic or systemic treatment strategies that are directed towards meeting the aspirations, goals and social welfare of citizens and constituencies.

The Institute for Economics and Peace headquartered in Sydney defines terrorism as, “The threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation.”1 It reports that the ten countries worst affected by terrorism are Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. All these are in Middle East, Africa, or Asia.2 In 2016, India was the third largest target of terrorism after Iraq and Afghanistan but before Pakistan. “Out of a total of 11,072 terror attacks in 2016 worldwide, India bore the brunt of 927, 16 per cent more than 2015 (798).”3 Of these, 317 terror incidents were in the East by the Maoists, also known as Naxalites albeit down from 866 in 2015.4 Also, merely four of the known 274 terror groups, the Islamic State or ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were responsible for 74 per cent of all deaths.5

The Cancer Metaphor

Terrorism has been described by some scholars as a disease. Paul B Stares and Mona Yacoubian have examined terrorism through an epidemiological model, drawing similarities in incidence, distribution and control of terrorism as a disease.6 They focused especially on Islamic extremism because majority of terror incidents seem to have such attributes. They observe that the fight against terrorist extremism is different from the conventional wars of the past, waged against fascism and communism during the Cold War or during the two World Wars. Today, the war against terrorism has the following characteristics:–

  • The conflict is likely to be prolonged.
  • The frontline is generally diffused and not clearly defined.
  • The enemy deploys unorthodox weapons and tactics.
  • There are no standard or conventional rules of engagement.
  • Distinction between civilians and enemy combatants is not discernable.
  • The enemy combatants are composed of transactional cohort of decentralised non-state fighters, who are highly dynamic.
  • The enemy combatants blend into the society effectively and hide the militant ideals that motivate them.

The fight against terrorist extremism is different from the conventional wars of the past  waged against fascism and communism during the Cold War or during the two World Wars…

Other characteristics that can be added to this list are:–

  • To achieve their ends, terrorists effectively use the openness of the democratic society, including its guarantee of freedom and religious expression.
  • The enemy combatants use the resources and technologies of the societies they attack.
  • The enemy combatants may or may not seek territorial gains.

With such characteristics, terrorism has been compared with cancer, especially by the late oncologist and renowned cancer researcher Dr Gregory A Curt (1952-2016). He served as the Clinical Director of the National Cancer Institute in the United States.7 He noted that the biological cells in an individual’s body, having hitherto existed “in apparent harmony with their neighbours for years”, become “activated” by some unknown and unheard “signal”, that is discernable only to the cells that are destined to develop malignant behavior. He saw the mechanism of cancer as being remarkably similar to that of terrorism. Activated, the cancerous cells migrate to the “nodes”. From there, they spread out to the various systems of the host organism. They no longer follow the “normal cell-to-cell interactions”. Like the terrorists, activated cells sustain themselves by using resources and mechanisms of the host’s biological systems. Interestingly, while recognising the extremely disruptive behaviour of the cancerous cells, Curt goes on to observe that the behaviour of the cancerous cell is “ultimately futile since the malignant cells will also die if they kill their host. The language and consequences of cancer and of international terrorism are eerily similar.”8

Curt viewed terrorism as a serious threat to free society just as cancer is to individual well-being. His motivation in tracing the similarities between terrorism and cancer was to sensitise our times to the need for dealing with terrorism through a new approach, one that had more in common with countering a disease. He too recognised that war against terrorism would not be won through the conventional approach during the two World Wars and the Cold War subsequently. A war against a disease is fundamentally of a different nature than a conventional war. Curt also recognised that cancer was a socio-economic disease that proved to be devastating for the poor. Terrorism too, thrives on deprivation, hopelessness, helplessness and inequality.

This metaphor has found appeal with a number of policy and decision makers. Former US President Richard Nixon was perhaps the first to describe terrorism as ‘a cancer’. On September 16, 1970, he responded to a string of airline hijackings and described these as “cancerous disease”. Through this metaphor, he also implied that “this disease must be combated through a variety of responses, just as cancer is treated through a variety of medical procedures.”9 Former Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who was at times referred to as ‘Zapatero Presidente’, used the metaphor of cancer to describe terrorism in Spain. He described the government as the doctor and the nation as the patient.10

Prevention of indigenous terrorism requires committed strategies implemented over an extended period for economic development in order to eradicate poverty…

The use of the medical metaphor for terrorism suggests a few approaches to treatment. Long term adherence to healthy nutrition and avoidance of carcinogenic stimuli, are important for the prevention of cancer. Similarly, prevention of indigenous terrorism requires committed strategies implemented over an extended period for economic development in order to eradicate poverty. When risks of cancer are increased by carcinogenic stimuli in the environment that are beyond an individual’s control, public health strategies are commonly instituted. For example, the move to reduce the inhalation of second-hand tobacco smoke. If the propensity for terrorism increases due to stimuli existing beyond its boundaries, India might engage in diplomacy to influence removal of associated risks.

Beyond nutrition and health promotion strategies, to prevent cancer from taking hold, it is important to take timely action to counter the factors that trigger it. Similarly, early detection of a propensity for terror incident and elimination of the risk factors, are critical in the prevention of a full-blown terror incident. India actively engages in counter-insurgency activities to neutralise such incidents at the outset, as witnessed on the Line of Control in Kashmir and in the North-Eastern Region of India. If in spite of all efforts, the cancer takes hold, the last resort in fighting cancer is surgery. US President Obama’s Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, used the medical metaphor, stating, “ISIL is a cancer that threatens to spread. And like all cancers, you cannot cure the disease just by cutting out the tumor. You have to eliminate it wherever it has spread and stop it from coming back…And as we destroy the parent tumor and disrupt its metastases, we are constantly mindful of our most important mission – protecting the homeland.”11

Nearly two-thirds of all terror attacks in India are planned in Pakistan. A major point of contention between India and Pakistan is Kashmir. Pre-partition, about 75 per cent of the population of Kashmir was Muslim. One major consideration for the division of British India was to carve Pakistan out of the region where Muslims were in majority.12 Water is arguably the scarcest commodity in South Asia.13 River Indus is a major source of water for Pakistan and Western India. Controlling Kashmir is critical because this important river passes through it. When British India was split into India and Pakistan, there were Muslim majorities in different parts of British India. Hence, Pakistan was created both, in the East and the West, separated by nearly 1,700 kilometres!

At that time, there were about 570 princely states in British India. These states, along with Kashmir, had the freedom to integrate into either India or Pakistan or to remain independent. The ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, vacillated for months. Raiders from Pakistan invaded Kashmir during in September – October 1947 to force the Maharaja to submission. The Maharaja escaped to India and sought protection of Kashmir, agreeing on October 26, 1947, to join India. This led to the Indo-Pakistan War of 1947. By the time a ceasefire was agreed upon, on January 01, 1949, India had pushed Pakistan back to create a Line of Control (LOC) that separated about a third of Jammu and Kashmir controlled by Pakistan from about two-thirds controlled by India. Subsequently, China staked a claim on the Aksai Chin part of Kashmir during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The Chinese are claiming about 20 per cent of the entire Jammu and Kashmir. It is significant that China, India and Pakistan, are all nuclear powers.

Nearly two-thirds of all terror attacks in India are planned in Pakistan…

India describes itself as a secular, democratic republic. This description makes Kashmir important to India. Every state in India has a Hindu majority, except for Kashmir. Giving up Kashmir would compromise India’s claims to being secular. Pakistan too, needs Kashmir. Besides the fact that Kashmir has a Muslim majority, it gives the Pakistani military legitimacy for exercising power on a nation-wide scale, ostensibly in national interest. If the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir were to be resolved, Pakistan’s military would have no legitimacy to remain on the national scene and would have to retreat to its barracks. Continuation of the perception of Kashmir issue as a threat to Pakistan’s national security, keeps the military in position to play a role in the governance of Pakistan, directly, through surrogates or through influence. Although India claims all of Jammu and Kashmir to be its part, the LOC has served as the de facto border between India and Pakistan for the past 71 years. However, the ongoing infiltration indicates that this is not acceptable to the Pakistani military.

Tension Between India and Pakistan

Much of the conflict experienced in India, comes from its neighbouring nations. Since the primary source is Pakistan, this essay focuses mainly on terrorism launched out of that neighborhood. The management of its terrorism challenge presents India with four options: (i) treatment of the indigenous problem, (ii) diplomatic collaboration with neighbouring countries, (iii) counter-insurgency to deal with cross-border infiltration of terrorists and (iv) surgical intervention well within the territory of the neighbouring countries harbouring the staging grounds from where terror attacks against India are launched. Let us review the history of each of these responses.

Treating the Indigenous Problem

Insurgencies experienced in India may be classified in three broad categories – those seeking (i) political rights, as in Kashmir and in demand for Khalistan out of Punjab (ii) social and economic justice, as in the case of Maoists or Naxalites and populations in the North-Eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, collectively referred to as the Seven Sisters and (iii) religious identity, as in Ladakh.14 The insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab may be viewed in political terms. As stated before, a number of these insurgencies include exploitation by foreign elements. Nevertheless, the indigenous causes of dissatisfaction create a fertile ground for foreign elements to exploit.

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As stated by Shahid Siddiqi, “During and after the colonial rule, territories were lumped together to form new administrative and political units or states, in many cases, without taking into account the preferences and aspirations of the people. For the people of these territories, amalgam amounted to loss of identity, freedom and rule by aliens. Democracy, in many cases, brought no political or economic advantage.”15 Caste is another social factor, contributing especially to the Maoist insurgency. The caste system effectively allows a powerful minority exercise a hold over the weaker majority through practice of ancient discriminatory customs. Overlapping with this is the issue of poverty. Various measures to improve quality of life and social justice, including sanitation, clean water, healthcare, nutrition and job opportunities, are correlated with the uneven distribution of wealth and resources.16 To address the threats to India from homegrown insurgency, it is critical that India give due attention to economic development of hitherto neglected regions and citizens along the identities of caste, ethnicity, language, religion and various other dimensions. However, as far as terrorism is concerned, eradication of poverty would address less than a third of India’s total terrorism challenge.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Krishna S Dhir, PhD

KRISHNA S. DHIR, a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, is Professor of Management Science and former Dean of the College of Business and Economics at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, USA. He has also served as a visiting professor at Hungary’s Szechenyi Istvan University and University of Pannonia, Australia’s RMIT University and Swinburne Univerisity of Technology, UK’s Coventry University, and other institutions.  Earlier, he was the chief academic officer of the business programs at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina in Charleston, USA.  Former Vice President of BioStar Medical Products and engineer with Borg-Warner in the US; and an executive of CIBA-GEIGY in Switzerland, he was elected Fellow of the Operational Research Society in 2004.  He served as the President of the Decision Sciences Institute during 2011-2012. He can be reached at: kdhir@iitbombay.org.

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