Death and disaster are not uncommon. This year, two disasters – one natural and one man-made – have brought it closer to all of us. The Gujarat earthquake was the first one in which we all seemed to know someone who died. Now, in the World Trade Centre and Pentagon bombings, we all know of a fellow citizen, an innocent brother, sister or friend, who perished.
The unfolding tragedy of the past week also brought into sharp focus the importance of the Visual. Pictures, especially live pictures, shock and numb. It did not matter where you were. Geography and national borders meant little. As long as you were in front of a television set, the pictures were identical everywhere in the world. India had seen this for the first time during the Gulf War a decade ago (that is when cable television took off).
If television fed the hunger for knowing what was happening now, the newspapers and the Internet supplemented the hunger for more information and opinion. Telephones, especially cellphones, along with email and Instant Messaging bridged loved ones and friends.
As the week wore on, it became clear that modern day technology has become so good and accessible that at times it can be frightening.
The flight simulators gave a near-perfect experience of what it is like to fly.
Forging passports and identities is easier to do now than ever before. Perhaps, the Internet too helped the terrorists communicate. Our national defences have become more and more high-tech, but the methods of our wars and enemies have changed. Monitoring and intelligence systems too will now need to.
I used to complain about the security checks at Indian airports. Only passengers are allowed in the terminals – family and friends have to bid goodbye from the crowded outside. Carry-on baggage is x-rayed once, and then opened for another check just before boarding. Passengers are frisked twice. Checked in baggage needs to be identified prior to boarding. Being a frequent traveller, this seemed too elaborate and time-consuming a process. I am never again to complain about this process again.
If anything, more modern systems like face-recognition or biometrics need to be deployed. This is the engineering and technological challenge: how can we make the world a safer place, and yet not take away the freedom of movement and right to privacy?