Photographer Sebastian D’Souza, who was able to take a photo of one of the armed terrorists in the train station in Mumbai, also described the events he witnessed there. One puzzling—not to mention profoundly troubling—aspect of his report was the following [emphasis mine]:
But what angered Mr D’Souza almost as much [as the terrorists’ rampage] were the masses of armed police hiding in the area who simply refused to shoot back. “There were armed policemen hiding all around the station but none of them did anything,” he said. “At one point, I ran up to them and told them to use their weapons. I said, ‘Shoot them, they’re sitting ducks!’ but they just didn’t shoot back.”
…The militants returned inside the station and headed towards a rear exit…Mr D’Souza added: “I told some policemen the gunmen had moved towards the rear of the station but they refused to follow them. What is the point if having policemen with guns if they refuse to use them? I only wish I had a gun rather than a camera.”
Unless these policemen were disciples of Gandhi or abject cowards, it’s hard to explain what might have stayed their hands. But I’ll give it a try.
Lack of readiness. There’s a difference between ordinary police training and the skills one learns in preparation for being a member of a SWAT or counter-terrorism team. Still, one would strongly hope—and expect—that any armed policemen would have the proper instincts and reflexes to take the terrorists out, even minus specialized training.
The problem in the Mumbai station could have been the presence of the crowd of innocents. The police may have been waiting for an opportunity to get off a clear and unobstructed shot, one with little likelihood of striking an unarmed traveler instead of a terrorist. Of course, when the terrorist in question is engaged in calmly murdering scores of people in the crowded station, it seems obvious that the policemen should have taken that chance. Even if a police bullet killed an innocent bystander, the action would end up saving far more people than it killed.
This much seems clear. But fear of doing the wrong thing may have paralyzed some of the policemen. I found a clue in an article about an incident from a month ago that indicates this might have been the case:
The Central and Bihar governments have reacted sharply against the Mumbai police killing a young man who allegedly fired shots and shouted slogans against Navnirman Seva (MNS) leader Raj Thackeray in a bus in Mumbai on Monday.
Police claim 23-year-old Rahul Raj, a resident of Patna who was visiting Mumbai, was mentally unstable and was gunned down when he refused to surrender or throw away his gun.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is visiting Delhi, condemned the Mumbai police for killing Raj… Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and Shyam Rajak, general secretary of the state opposition Rashtriya Janta Dal party, also condemned the police.
A single man on a bus shouting slogans and firing shots that hit no one is not the same as a group of armed men coolly gunning down people in a crowded railway station. But it’s not really that big a stretch from one to the other. And if the killing of the first man was widely condemned, and the Mumbai police warned against another similar incident, that might have accounted for at least some of the tragic hesitation of the policemen in the train station.
I wrote the preceding part of this post late last night, planning to publish it today. Then this morning I read an article in the NY Times, which quoted police and/or military forces at the Taj Hotel, giving new support to my theory:
On Saturday afternoon, a sharpshooter who had spent over 60 hours perched outside the Taj Hotel said neither he nor his partner had fired a shot because they were not sure how to distinguish the gunmen from ordinary civilians trapped inside the hotel.
Similarly, a commando told a private Indian television station, CNN-IBN, that the gunmen seemed to be firing from so many different parts of the hotel that security forces did not quite know where to strike without inflicting civilian casualties. “There were so many people, and we wanted to avoid any civilian casualties,” he said.
It seems that in India, even “commandos” (which indicates at least some sort of specialized preparation) are not trained to face the chance that they might possibly inflict civilian casualties themselves in a situation like this. But such a risk is an inevitable part of dealing with terrorists willing and eager to fire into crowds. The police must be willing to do the same. The big difference is that the terrorists are aiming for the civilians, whereas the security forces are aiming for the terrorists.
[ADDENDUM: Quite a few interesting topics have come up in the comments section of this post. For more on one of them—Gandhi and pacifism—see this. For more on another—how to train troops to kill—see this.]