I've always had this talent for being stoic about bad things that happen around me, as long as they don't actually happen to me. Of course I worry about them at times, and try to think up solutions to some of these problems, but I generally don't get too worked up about them. Call me selfish. Or call me a guy with a short attention span.
But this time, they struck too close for comfort. As soon as I found out (11:00am EST, 8:30pm IST - the world really is growing smaller isn't it?), I remembered that my brother takes a train between Andheri and Borivali everyday to travel to and from work. I got through to him on his cellphone pretty easily (considering that people even locally were having trouble reaching each other), but the first words he said to me were "Rajesh, I can't reach Daddy."
Apparently, my father had gone to South Bombay for some Annual General body meeting. He's retired, spends most of his time close to home, and usually drives wherever he needs to go. The last thing I'd expected was for him to be using the trains. After about an hour of telling each other that he never travels by first class on the trains, and that he'd never travel by train during peak hours, and that he usually takes the bus, and that the fact that his phone was ringing, meant the phone was okay, and if the phone was okay, it meant he was okay, and that he never answers his cellphone anyway, my father reached home safe. He'd spent three hours in a bus trying to get home.
The simple fact is, that when you hit the mode of transport that is used by a majority of the city's residents, and you hit it at peak time, those 186 dead and 714 injured, could be anyone. They could be your brother, your aunt, or that guy you went to school with, that friend you made last year at a conference, the girl you've been wanting to ask out for weeks, your Maths teacher... anyone.
I work in Manhattan these days, and the blasts were immediately noticed by New Yorkers who've been hearing rumours about terrorists targetting New York's subway system. Suddenly those rumours seem a lot more possible.
Of course, in India we have the additional worry that an incident like this could be used by political parties and/or jobless youth to spread even more fear and kill/injure even more people. Even though our cities generally tend to show solidarity rather communal disharmony in such situations, the political climate in the country tends to give rise to fear anyway. A few hours after the blasts, everyone was expecting riots in the city.
Anyway. The important thing is to ensure that it's a lot tougher for terrorists to do something like this again. But what?
While I don't think that it is feasible for the police force of any city to keep an eye on every single spot where a bomb could be hidden, I think the statements by bloggers and journalists that indicate "it's impossible to stop such terrorism", are too simplistic.
After 9/11, every train station, and every airport in New York asks passengers to be vigilant and "report suspicious behaviour". These messages are broadcast on public announcement systems, and seem to be more frequent when intelligence reports indicate a higher risk of attacks. The police force has only so many eyeballs. What we need to do is get the public involved. And by that, I don't mean beating up the next guy you find wearing a turban, a beard or just unwashed clothes.
We need hotlines that people can call up to leave reports of people doing suspicious things, or suspicious looking packages in public places. We need to confiscate every bag left unattended for more than 30 seconds in a public place. We need a police force that can work hard enough to look into at least 80-90% of these reports for the first couple of weeks. Initially, the number of false reports will be very high. Paranoia and the general excitement of having a forum to voice your suspicions to, will cause that. But soon that will die down. And we will need to repeatedly broadcast messages for people to keep their eyes open, and to tell someone about anything that might seem important. God knows how many people die in terrorist attacks, because the few people who did notice something ignored it because they had to get to a meeting, or catch a train, and didn't think it was important, or didn't know how to let someone know.
We need to go to every school out there and tell children to keep their eyes open. Any parent will tell you how observant children can be. And how much smarter than us adults.
Make it easy for people to drop a report. Ensure that any cellphone can call that number. Let it get recorded on voice-mail. Allow people to send SMSes. It might help if the person making the call thinks they won't have to waste time "speaking to someone". At the same time, give them the choice of a human interface.
You never know what someone might notice next.