The Ingenuity

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Excerpt from the final chapter ("Patna") of The Ingenuity Gap


D.G. Kulatunga was a lucky man. The senior security officer of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka was standing by the bank's front doors at 10:50 a.m. on January 31st, 1996. He watched without alarm as a three-wheel motorized rickshaw and a large truck approached along the busy Columbo street that passes directly in front of the bank.

Suddenly, two men jumped out of the rickshaw and unleashed a hail of automatic gunfire at Mr. Kulatunga's guards. One of the attackers launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the bank's mental gates. The security officers returned fire, but two had already been killed. The truck then rammed the gates, trying to force its way through steel-reinforced concrete barriers that blocked the bank's entrance. It backed up and rammed the gates again but couldn't reach the building's front doors.

A moment later, as the two attackers sped away in their rickshaw, the truck erupted in a fireball. A four hundred kilogram bomb buried under sacks of rice in its back exploded, incinerating the truck and its driver.

The bank's two bottom floors collapsed. Mr. Kulatunga was hammered to the ground and knocked unconscious in a shower of debris. He awoke a short while later to find himself uninjured. But many others were not so fortunate. The Central Bank had erupted into flames, and the windows and facades of all the surrounding buildings had been shattered. Eighty-six people had been killed, and over thirteen hundred injured, many by splinters of flying glass. The heart of Colombo's financial district had been destroyed.

It's a long way from Las Vegas to Colombo. But eight months after my visit to the desert city in Nevada, I found myself high in an office tower overlooking a hubbub of construction cranes and workers rebuilding the Central Bank. It was June 1998, almost two-and-a-half years after the bombing. Looking out of the office's floor-to-ceiling windows, I could see the haze and cumulous clouds gathering over the ocean beyond Colombo's port. The monsoon rains that afternoon were going to be heavy.

I was on my way to find the little girl in Patna, whose photograph had inspired me in my quest to solve the ingenuity puzzle. It was a quixotic, even bizarre thing to be doing, I knew - to travel to the other side of the planet to find a single, unidentified child. I had no idea whether I'd succeed, or even whether it would be meaningful if I did. And, in those moments when I was completely frank with myself, I admitted that I really had no idea why I wanted to find her. I was simply drawn to something about her face and her angry, enigmatic expression. People's faces, I was slowly realizing, are critical connection points among us in our increaingly fluid, atomized, and dehumanize world. Faces - as we look for them, come to know them, and remember them - can help us translate crowds into community, and selfishness and egocentrism into empathy and generosity.

I had decided not to go to India directly, though. Instead, I stopped briefly in Colombo to pursue further the answer to a key question: What happens to the supply of social ingenuity when dangerous subgroups gain power relative to the state? The attack on the Central Bank had been the work of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - the LTTE or Tigers for short. One of the world's most aggressive and sophisticated secessionist movements, the LTTE aims to carve a Tamil homeland out of the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka, and it has been waging a brutal war towards this end for over fifteen years. The group was, I suspected, representative of a new kind of high-tech armed violence that is beginning to afflict many poor countries and that may already be spilling over into rich countries too.

An old friend of mine had arranged for me to interview Mr. Amarananda Jayawardena, the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. His office was modern, large, and spare, with an arc of huge windows behind his desk, a couple of chairs and a table for visitors, and a model of the new bank building against one wall. When we arrived, the Governor, a short man of about sixty with a round face and a precise but gentle manner, welcomed us and showed us to the chairs. He said he'd been up since 5 a.m. dealing with the latest reverberations of the Asian currency crisis. After we were comfortable, he gave us his account of the bombing and its impact on the Sri Lankan economy.

He had been in his office at the back of the building when the bomb exploded. He wasn't hurt, so he spent the next several hours helping to remove the dead and wounded from the front and lower floors of the building. Clearly, the event had shaken him deeply, yet he remained optimistic about the future, and he drew from the attack some interesting lessons. All over the world, he pointed out, central banks were taking precautions against terrorist attack - not just against bombs, but also against attacks by computer hackers. Government officials and bankers had come to recognize that terrorists were keen to strike symbols of economic authority.

I was reminded of the recent spate of bombings of financial centers, with targets including the City of London in 1992 and 1993, the Bombay stock exchange and the New York World Trade Center in 1993, as well as Sri Lanka's Central Bank in 1996. Canary Wharf had also been attacked in 1996; the IRA detonated a bomb in a carpark near the writhing bridge I crossed on my evening walk through the Isle of Dogs. Such attacks are not, I knew, an entirely new phenomenon. In September, 1920, a huge bomb ripped through Wall Street, killing forty people and injuring some three hundred others. Although at the time the attack was widely attributed to "Reds," the case was never officially solved.

If the LTTE had hoped to wreck Sri Lanka's economy, however, they must have been sorely disappointed. The day after the bombing, the Governor contacted the heads of the country's commercial banks and asked them to take over all international financial transactions normally handled by the Central Bank, especially foreign exchange transactions and payments on Sri Lanka's foreign debt. He also temporarily suspended treasury bill auctions. The biggest problem he faced, it turned out, was replacing records of old banking transactions. The records could be read only by obsolete technology that was no longer available in the country, so the Governor had a machine flown especially from Singapore for the purpose. In general, though, the disruptions were surprisingly minor. The Colombo stock exchange registered barely a tremor, and, as the commercial banks stepped in to help, the country's financial network showed exactly the kind of resilience that John Bongaarts talked about during our dinner in London.

But the Governor nevertheless cautioned against complacency. He emphasized the importance of redundancy in key components of the financial and communication systems, and he said that there had to be good integration between the financial system's internal security organizations and those of the police, army, and government bureaucracy. "A terrorist only has to be successful once," he summed up, "but we have to be alert all the time."

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