» This Story:Read +| Comments
Archive   |   Biography   |   RSS Feed   |   Opinions Home

Programmed to kill

Discussion Policy
Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

At the World Economic Forum some years ago, I attended a panel discussion on robots. One of the experts -- everyone's an expert at Davos -- predicted that robots would take over the world. Another said this was nonsense. A robot couldn't even scratch its own back. Now we see the second expert was wrong. Robots killed more than 160 people in Mumbai.

This Story

It's hard not to call the 10 young men who did the killing (nine of them died) anything other than robots. They did not know the people they killed. They did not care about the people they killed. They took orders over the phone from a controller in Pakistan. When he told them to kill, they killed. When he told them to die, they died.

"Be brave, brother. Don't panic," the controller said to one gunman, called Brother Fahadullah. "For your mission to end successfully, you must be killed. God is waiting for you in heaven."

Fahadullah died soon afterward.

These words are taken from the transcript of a stunning and very disturbing HBO documentary called "Terror in Mumbai." It premiered Nov. 19, near the first anniversary of the terrorist attack. I missed writing about it then, but now, if possible, it is even more relevant.

In recent days, five young men from Northern Virginia have been arrested in Pakistan, apparently and allegedly bent on joining terrorist outfits there. Even more disturbing, it now seems that the Mumbai attack was assisted in its planning by a Chicago resident, native-born American named David Headley, who is now in custody. He allegedly scouted locations.

The right tone to strike when writing about the threat of domestic terrorism is hard to find. It's easy to be alarmist, and it's easy, too, to dismiss the threat as the cacophonous nonsense of errant fools. But as the HBO documentary, narrated firmly and smartly by my colleague Fareed Zakaria (a Mumbai native) proves, it does not take a clever individual to commit appalling mayhem. All it takes is a frightening plasticity and some training.

The Mumbai killers were all poor kids from the sticks of Pakistan. The one who survived was not an Islamic fanatic, the product of some madrassa, but was sold to the terrorists by his father so his brothers and sisters could marry. In three months he and the others were turned into merciless killers.

"What, shoot them?" one of the gunmen asks the controller over the phone. The gunman is holding hostages at the Jewish center, and the calls from his controller are being intercepted by Indian intelligence.

"Yes, do it. Sit them up and shoot them in the back of the head. Do it in God's name."

The phone is kept on. Gunshots are heard.

"Okay, that was one of them, yes?" the controller asks.

The killer corrects him. "Both. Together."

The coldblooded killing of Jews is hardly a new idea. The Mumbai terrorist attacks had elements of Eastern Europe during the Holocaust. There, too, it may be comforting to think of the killers as beasts -- not like us. But "Ordinary Men," Christopher Browning's account of the mass killing of Jews by the Germans of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, should have taught us what ordinary men are capable of doing. All together, the battalion shot 38,000 Jews and deported 45,200 others to the extermination camp at Treblinka.

Mumbai advances the horror. The banal background of the German killers -- not by any means hardened Nazis -- is somewhat similar to the pedestrian stories of the Mumbai killers. The difference was that the Mumbai terrorists were not only willing to kill others but themselves as well. For them, there was no going home.

At Davos, a panelist described what he thought would happen when the computer in one robot was hooked up to the computer in another and then another and another until each robot was super-smart and super-fast and constructed out of some sort of bulletproof material and totally without a conscience -- cold, soulless, pitiless.

This is not exactly what happened in Mumbai, but it's close enough. A train station, two hotels and -- not by random -- a Jewish center were attacked, and the vast and important city was brought to a three-day standstill. It was done with nothing fancy -- some automatic weapons, grenades and young men turned into robots. They proved the Davos expert was a bit behind the times. The future has been here all along.


» This Story:Read +| Comments

More Washington Post Opinions


Post Partisan

Quick takes from The Post's opinion writers.

Washington Sketch

Washington Sketch

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the capital.

Tom Toles

Tom Toles

See his latest editorial cartoon.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company