Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.2.7: Are You Terrorized Yet?

It has been over two years now since 9-11 and while I still marvel at the event that has etched that date in our collective consciousness I still wonder whether I am, as I believe was the intent of that heinous act, “terrorized.”

I look out from my deck which overlooks San Diego harbor, home to some US aircraft carriers, nuclear subs, and assorted other military hardware and now I wonder how easy to would be to bring a container ship in (in which scarcely two percent of containers are inspected), detonate a nuclear device amidst the nuclear-powered Navy fleet.

I watched as fires consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of land and thousands of buildings in a few days, presumably set off by a single stupid act, and wonder how easy it would be to repeat it with a few well-placed acts of terrorist arson.

When I see how helpless we become at a simple power outage when we are deprived of communication and transportation by some mishap that turns out to be so simple, I wonder at how vulnerable we our with our dependence on technology.

Is this what it means to be “terrorized”? When I drive past the nuclear power plant at San Onofre and think such thoughts, or over the California aqueduct and imagine how easy it would be for someone to drop some horrible, deadly chemical or bio-agent into it, is that what Osama wants me to be thinking about?

Is that how I should be thinking? Should I be on “orange” level alert all the time, checking to see if there are any suspicious characters while the airport authorities are checking my shoes and confiscating my nail clippers. (How many nail clippers have they confiscated? Did it occur to them that now terrorists might decide to claw flight crews into submission with their lethally long, unclipped nails?)

Well, by now anyone might conclude that I am indeed terrorized. Which I guess is normal under the circumstances. It’s what one does with being terrorized that matters. I have little personal power to do much other than be alert and not compromise what we now call “homeland security.” I don’t mean stupid like putting a couple of those window flagpoles on our SUVs and roaring around yelling how proud we are to be Americans.

Maybe what doesn’t kill you makes you more alert, if it doesn’t make you stronger. That must have been Al Qaeda’s point. To let us know that we’re vulnerable, that we’re not really safe and secure anywhere.

But I think there might be more to it than that. Maybe Osama thinks that the real effectiveness of terrorizing us is that he won’t have to do all that much and we will start acting irrationally, making stupid decisions, flailing about with ham-handed preemptive wars so that we will do as much, or more, damage to ourselves by alienating allies and making new terrorists.

Then again, reflecting back on what wrote in 1995 we might have even more to worry about than Osama bin Laden.


Toklahoma City

“Men come together in cities for safety; they stay together for the good life.”
Aristotle (Athens, 4th C. B.C.)

“I don’t feel safe anywhere anymore.” 
Anon. Woman (Oklahoma City, 4/19/95)

“Sister cities” are usually established by chamber of commerce types looking for deals and excuses for junkets. History goes about it differently, and often with irony. That Tokyo and Oklahoma City should become joined together at the hip by the sinews of urban terrorism is something perhaps only the convulsive effects of Sarin gas or the concussive impact of a truck-sized bomb could have brought to consideration.

But there is perhaps more than the datelines of April 1995 upon which to construct parallels between these two very different cities in very different cultures. It is odd that the instruments of terror were household chemicals with which we can do our windows and laundry, or do away with scores of innocent people; or, that chemicals to fertilize crops and fuel tractors and combines can be combined to blast craters in out of the centers of cities. “Better dying through chemistry”: deadly concoctions that can be served up with noodles or mashed potatoes.

Then there is the grim apocalyptic visions of the subcultures from which the perpetrators have emerged: one a bizarre concoction as deadly as Sarin of religious zealotry and hatred of the secular order; the other emerging from and explosive blend of gun-love, fanciful fears of big-brother government, and death by taxation or Koresh-like martyrdom. Both exhibit paranoia and persecution complexes, and both claim to act out of defense against big, bad government.

And despite the fact that both these cities are in the two most powerful economies in the world, and both market-driven democracies, there are similar problems at the mico level. Perhaps the counterpart of America’s angry white male feeding his fears on the strident harangues of reactionary politics, or playing let’s-defend-our-right-to-bear-arms on the weekend, is the pressure-cooked Japanese salaryman (or wannabe) struggling with the political corruption or corrupting capitalism, turning to a religious smorgasbord of ersatz spirituality filling the vacuum of lost emperor worship or traditional religions of less that modern pace.

There is, moreover, a discernable anti-urban tinge to the current waves of urban terror in Japan and America. Though the perpetrators and their methodology may surprise us, the ingredients are familiar ones. Not the least of them is, of course, religious fundamentalism. From biblical times church and state have been uneasy sharing the same ground. Today the call to smote the secular City of Man with the scared sword comes from pulpit and minaret and aum.

Just as hateful to the deliverers of urban terror is that cities are places where we must regulate our lives and behavior if there is to be any social order, where we must tax ourselves if we are to have the safety, security and services that urban life affords; it is where we must show tolerance toward those of different creed, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and social philosophy. These are not just desiderata, they are the essentials of urban life. They have not produced the heavenly city on earth, and never will; but, for most of us they are far, far preferable than the alternatives of practicing for Armageddon in the woods in camouflage, holing up with bibles and bazookas in a compound outside Waco, or mixing up Sarin cocktails in a religious retreat on Mt Fugi.

Cities were, of course, relatively safe places to be in Aristotle’s time. Their safety was in their walls, and the willingness of their citizens to defend them against the terrorists of the time. The real mortar in city walls was in the sense of common enterprise and destiny that its citizens could maintain. But if the only mucilage binding people together are common paranoia and intolerance, they will, sooner or later, tear themselves and their city down.

Aristotle’s teacher, Plato felt that the city should be not larger in citizens that they could not all be assembled within earshot of a political speaker. One wonders whether Plato would have thought had he been within earshot of a congressman from Oklahoma City, who wondered aloud for the media at the time the perpetrators were still alleged to have been “foreigners” as to why terrorists would choose a city in “America’s heartland.” He opined that he could understand it if the bomb had been detonated in New York, or Los Angeles; but he felt that this time the terrorists must have intended to strike a blow “at real Americans.” * 

Like negative voting, fear is a stronger motivator to political action than contentment. But it is far less often that big business is blamed for devouring the worker and the small businessman, than government is held accountable because it levies taxes and regulations. One supposes that, in the twisted Orwellian logic of terrorists, if government stopped taxing them to pay for the salaries and services of the police, fire and rescue workers, and other government officials, there would be no need to commit acts of terror that make them necessary.

*He would be well-advised not to repeat this in New York City after 9-11

©1995, ©2003, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.25.2003)

From: San Diego American Planning Association Journal, May 1995