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An Impossible Promise, Broken

As more and more details emerge from the massacres in Mumbai this week, one cannot help but be horrified at how events unfolded — and what did and did not happen.

In cases such as this, in most societies, one relies on the police for protection. They are the custodians of the peace, and it is their duty to confront and stop such savages as those who were responsible for the deaths of nearly 200 people (at last count).

Yet the accounts of the atrocity seem to indicate that the police were utterly ineffective. Reports of police being unarmed or very poorly armed (one account detailed a group of officers with a single World War II-vintage rifle between them for firearms) and responding very poorly when given the chance to confront the terrorists.

Indeed, the terrorists held so little fear of the police (justifiably, as it turns out), that one of their targets was a police station, and one of their victims Mumbai’s top anti-terrorist officer.

This is, in and of itself, bad enough. But in India, this was even worse.

India has very, very strict gun control laws. They don’t quite outright ban guns, but they come very, very close. So the citizenry was denied the opportunity to protect themselves.

The government of India, by denying its citizens the right to keep and bear arms, was making a tacit promise to their people: “you don’t need to worry about protecting yourselves, because we’ll protect you.”

That is a promise it had no intention to keep, no ability to keep, and no right to make in the first place.

The right to self-defense is quite possibly the most fundamental right. If one does not have the right to live, to defend one’s life to the best of one’s ability, every other right is utterly moot.

It is that right that was denied the people in India, who found themselves with nothing they could do to protect themselves.

There are a few tales out of the massacre that are worth repeating. They are stories of heroism – the nanny who saved two-year old Moshe Holtzberg after he saw his parents brutally murdered. There are stories of great peril — the couple who had escaped the initial assault then hearing their room number announced on CNN.  (“How about the couple in Room 527 — are they still OK?” or something like that.) There is the photographer who wishes he had had a gun instead of a camera when he saw the terrorists, and  fruitlessly demanded that the police shoot.

These stories have a common element: an enforced passivity and the denied opportunity to actively resist. The nanny fled with the little boy because she had no other choice. The couple hid in their room because they had no other choice. The photographer took pictures instead of action because he had no other choice.

Would any of these people — or any of the other victims of the savage attack — taken action if they would have had the opportunity? Would they, somehow, made the situation even worse by shooting back at the terrorists?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But we will never know.

Because the government of India made sure that they would not have that option. It made the promise that they did not need to protect themselves, that the government would protect them.

And the people who put their faith in that promise suffered gravely for that action.

In the end, the ultimate responsibility for the deaths in Mumbai must be laid at the feet of those who plotted and sponsored and carried out the attacks. They, and they alone, have the blood of all those killed and wounded on their hands.

But the government of India must answer, too, for why it demanded that its citizens and guests forfeit their right to stay alive, to defend their lives and the lives of their loved ones and their fellows.

Places with rigid gun control rules work fine — right up until someone decides to break those rules. At that point, these alleged “safe havens” become nothing more than hunting preserves for the killers.

That is precisely whatMumbai became of late. A place where the government made guarantees of safety that it would not, could not keep.

And those who put their faith and trust in that government paid dearly.


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