On September 11, 2001, I was on a flight to San Francisco, sleeping soundly somewhere over the Pacific when the twin towers were attacked. I was originally scheduled to fly on the 9th, but I was down with the flu, and my departure was delayed by a couple of days. Three-fourths of the way from Singapore, the flight was redirected to Vancouver. After landing, the plane sat on the tarmac for five hours before being carefully unloaded. (We were given no information about what had happened until about two hours after we had landed). I then spent two days in Canada, glued to my television set at the Hyatt Regency, where Singapore Airlines so graciously put us up -- a displaced, disjointed lot.
The world changed then, and the world is about to change again. The attacks on Mumbai, in that sense, are exactly the same and seek to send the same message to the world. It would be a mistake to think this is an attack on India. I wouldn't relegate it to such a narrow context. Fundamentally this is an attack by a closed, nihilistic society on an open and progressive one. Ostensibly, the message being sent is, "No matter how superior you think you are, we can bring you to your knees."
Any old-world ideology can be twisted into this template, and made to work in this way. In this case, and this time in the world, Islam is being used in this way. The mental trick being used here is to really zero in on the most intolerant parts of scripture, and use that as an intellectual override for irrational acts. Every old-world religion has enough material in its body of scripture to be vulnerable to this kind of manipulation. After all, they were only created by human beings.
The desired effect of the attack is more subtle, it really seeks to transform the victim (a vibrant, open society) into a mirror of the perpetrator (a prejudiced, closed one).
So when we put it in that context, this is really a sequel to 9-11, and the London Underground bombings and needs to be put in proper perspective.
The scale in terms of physical impact may not be as extensive as 9-11, but its equally powerful in terms of its media impact, and hold on the popular imagination. Also, India has been attacked only because it is the most accessible open society that can be subject to such an attack. New York and London have significantly raised the bar for any attack of this kind, and so Mumbai was the best soft target.
The challenge here is to preserve openness and freedom, without becoming an image of the attacker. The more we seek to defend ourselves, the more closeted we become as a society. So, IMHO, offence seems to be the best form of defence in this case. The hardest part is finding what form the offensive strategy should take, without causing the world to come to an end :-). This last bit because the target of the offensive strategy is a failed state with nuclear weapons. Who really runs this state? Who would be the target of retaliation?
I do hope such an offensive strategy exists, and is found in time by those whose job it is to think more deeply about such things.