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Missing the real McCoy

It’s so ironic that news of Ajmal Kasab’s death sentence for the butchery in Mumbai was crowded off the world’s front pages by Faisal Shahzad’s damp squibs in a smoking SUV in New York City, Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: May 07, 2010 21:35 IST

It’s so ironic that news of Ajmal Kasab’s death sentence for the butchery in Mumbai was crowded off the world’s front pages by Faisal Shahzad’s damp squibs in a smoking SUV in New York City. The Mumbai attack was planned with military precision and revealed exactly what we are up against. The attempted bombing of Times Square was conceived by an amateur and executed by a hopeless optimist.

Shahzad’s bomb, a hodge-podge of gasoline cans, propane tanks, firecrackers, a pressure cooker and alarm clocks, is like a B-grade mad scientist’s IED. No, actually, it reminds me of the cartoons of Heath Robinson (1872-1944) in Britain and Rube Goldberg (1883-1970) in the US, who depicted absurdly complicated machines for executing the simplest tasks, such as brushing your teeth or wiping a diner’s chin with a napkin. Components of a typical Goldberg machine included levers, pulleys, spoons, pails, cannonballs, see-saws, rockets and lighters to set them off, and birds and birdfeed too. They had a few odds and ends in common with Shahzad’s failed bomb.

Robinson and Goldberg’s implausible devices made an indelible mark on popular culture. The women who manned the famous Bletchley Park cryptographic operation to break German codes during World War II lovingly named their most complicated-looking device ‘Heath Robinson’. The ungainly machine was a direct ancestor of Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital computer. And Rube Goldberg’s memory lives on through Goldberg Machine contests in the US. The biggest is a national contest hosted by Purdue University. The challenge for 2010 is to build a machine which dispenses precisely the right amount of hand sanitiser into a human hand by using at least 20 absurdly useless processes.

Shahzad would probably have had more fun competing at Purdue than in failing to bomb New Yorkers trying to catch a new show. And I am amazed by Qari Hussain Mehsud, the maximum bomber of the Pakistani Taliban, who has had the temerity to claim responsibility for this fizzle-out. It is like a surgeon audaciously taking responsibility for a botched operation in which he left his stethoscope and car keys inside a patient.

Talking of cars, couldn’t someone have told Shahzad how to acquire one for a bombing operation? You don’t buy it, and you don’t give your phone number and email address to the seller. Even a two-bit thug from Moradabad knows that you have to steal it or rent the services of a car thief. Yes, you have to do things unbecoming of a soldier of the just war and the son of an air vice-marshal. And then you can’t just file the vehicle identification number off the dashboard and change the plates. You have to scrape that damned number off every bit of the body, engine and chassis where it may be lurking. Any two-bit mechanic from Aligarh could tell you that.

President Obama is redundantly confident that Americans will not be “cowering in fear” after Shahzad’s botched attempt. They have no reason to do so, just as they have no reason to congratulate themselves on arresting Shahzad. He was so inept that he asked the police: what kept you? He is a travesty of the real thing — Ajmal Kasab, whom we have just sent to the gallows.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal