Soft targets for hard terrorists

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Monday, December 6, 2004

4.20pm IST - A dangerous new age

As I write this, the Indian tour to Bangladesh has been delayed because of a terrorist threat. The Bangladeshis claim it is a hoax, an Indian security team has gone there to inspect the security arrangements, and in a few hours we will presumably know if the tour is going ahead. If the security arrangements are found to be inadequate, then it will be a good reason to call off the tour. But if the security is fine, and the tour is called off because of the terrorist threat, that will be odd. Because the terrorist threat has existed for years now.

That might seem a strange assertion, in the light of the fact that no terrorist activity involving cricket or a cricketer has yet taken place. Sure, Australia refused to play in Sri Lanka during the 1996 World Cup, and New Zealand have called off tours to Sri Lanka and Pakistan after bomb blasts, but cricketers themselves haven't yet been attacked. What happened at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed by a Palistinean terrorist group called Black September, was a one-off. Sportsmen have generally not been targets for terrorists. But, logically, there is no reason why that will not change soon.

Terrorists traditionally have had two kinds of targets: the High-Impact Tough Target (HITT) and the Low-Impact Soft Target (LIST). (This is my postulation, first made in an article written in Wisden Asia Cricket in June 2002.) An HITT is a target which, if struck successfully, would have a high impact on people, and would probably cause a national uproar. But HITTs are well defended, and difficult to breach. The Pentagon, a 9/11 target, falls in this category, as does the Indian parliament, which was attacked in late 2001. HITT attacks are rare, because of their difficulty, but desirable from a terrorist's point of view, because of the media exposure they receive.

LISTs, on the other hand, are easy to get at, but do not have that much of an impact because, in countries that are used to terrorism, they take place freqently and involve common people. Palistinean militants in Israel have focussed a lot on LISTs - discos, cafes and the like - as have the terrorists in Kashmir, where incidents blur into one another, and their impact gets more and more diluted.

A terrorist's dream would be a High-Impact Soft Strike (HISS) - a target that is both easy to strike and impactful at the same time. In India, where cricket and cinema are almost like religion, cricketers and filmstars are perfect candidates for a HISS. Top players, and the biggest movie stars, are so revered that if anything were to happen to them, the nation would be as anguished as by an attack on parliament or on a politician. And they are ridiculously easy to get access to, as many ardent autograph hunters would testify. For cricketers, this is especially true in the off season, when they travel around with often no security at all.

It is a no-brainer that at some point or the other, terrorists will figure this out and stake out their targets. It is such a horrifying thought that my instinctive reaction is to go into denial. If the cost of celebrity becomes such peril, then will we all have to temper our ambitions and settle for safe mediocrity?

The days when crowds could be allowed to joyfully rush onto the field and mingle with the players are over. Leave alone terrorists, even a stray nut, a Mark Chapman of cricket, could harm a player if allowed access. Such breaches have thankfully gone down in recent years, though that moment at Lord's in 2002, when a fan rushed towards Sachin Tendulkar during an India-England Test, was a worrying one. There was a similar breach in a game at the recent Champions Trophy, though the tournament was otherwise well-policed.

Players, thus, need to be vigilant even when they are not playing cricket, mindful of the perils of their fame. And cricket authorities need to make sure that nothing goes wrong on their watch. The threat about the Bangladesh tour may well turn out to be a hoax - why should a dog that intends to bite bother to bark? - but every match, every tour should be policed as if there is a terrorist threat, a clear and present danger. Perhaps the times will change, and a future generation can feel safer. But not us, and not now.

My other blog: I keep getting mails from people asking me why I only write on cricket. Well, now I don't. Please do visit my new blog, The Middle Stage. If you don't like it, write in and tell me, constructive criticism is welcome; my new blog is still, you could say, in a Beta stage. And if you like it, please tell all your friends about it.

Update (December 10): Yet another blog of mine, India Uncut, is now up. Do check it out.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Cricinfo in India.

Write to 23 Yards

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