NEW DELHI – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's visit to South Asia this week has been filled with serious diplomatic meetings and agreements to boost ties with India and Bangladesh but his motorcade's struggle with monsoon downpours and an off-the-cuff remark about terrorism may have garnered more attention.
After threading through streets covered with nearly knee-deep rain water on Wednesday, Kerry delivered a speech at a New Delhi university extolling the virtues of the U.S.-Indian relationship and calling for adherence to a rules-based international system. His opening line to the students, though, may have resonated more deeply. "I don't know how you got here, by boat or amphibious vehicle, but I salute you," he said.
He would know. Kerry's arrival in India on Monday came in the aftermath of an unusually heavy rain that left many streets in the Indian capital flooded and virtually impassable. Even with a police escort, Kerry's motorcade from the airport to his hotel crawled through snarled traffic on a tortuous trip that at one point took roughly 90 minutes to cover just over a mile (2 kilometers). The delay lit up Indian social media sites and made the front pages of many newspapers.
Back in the U.S., Kerry was criticized for an off-hand comment he made Monday in Bangladesh suggesting the media reduce coverage of terrorist attacks. That prompted clarifications from the White House and State Department in Washington
In a speech in Bangladesh, which like India has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks, Kerry made an oft-noted point that violent extremism is a scourge that must be fought 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
But, diverging from his prepared remarks, he then added: "But if you decide one day you're going to be a terrorist and you're willing to kill yourself, you can go out and kill some people. You can make some noise. Perhaps the media would do us all a service if they didn't cover it quite as much. People wouldn't know what's going on."
The remark was met with a smattering of applause from his Bangladeshi audience and went largely unnoticed until the State Department released a transcript of the speech, prompting criticism from conservative and other critics of the Obama administration's approach to terrorism.
Asked about the comment on Tuesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Kerry was simply acknowledging the fact that terrorists seek to not only kill their victims but also to instill fear in others and earn publicity for themselves.
"There's the violence itself and the havoc that it can wreak and the fear that it can instill and the damage that it can cause," Kirby said. "And there's also the notoriety that comes with the press coverage from it, the glorification of that through amplification in the mass media. And I think he (Kerry) was just referring to that as a fact and something that we all have to be mindful of as these events happen."
At the White House, spokesman Josh Earnest said the comment reflected President Barack Obama's desire to keep terrorist attacks in perspective.