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3 June 2009

Architectures of fear: Terrorism and the future of urbanism in the West

Conference lectured at the Symposium "Architectures of fear. Terrorism and the Future of Urbanism in the West" CCCB 17-18 May 2007

New York, September 11, 2001; Madrid, March 11, 2003; London, July 7, 2005 – the legacy and specter of catastrophic terror haunt the collective unconscious of Western cities in the early 21st century.
Of course, terrorism in Western cities is nothing new. A long history of domestic terror campaigns in the West has been fuelled by sub-national independence struggles or Left-Right ideological battles. But due to the scale of their operations, the culture of martyrdom shared by their volunteers, and the transnational diasporic character of the communities from which those volunteers come, Islamist terror networks and their imitators call into question the deepest underlying assumptions about Western urbanism.
Such attacks add further impetus to an already palpable militarization and securitization of urban space in many Western cities. This is often related closely to deepening social polarization, urban sprawl, a proliferation of fortified enclaves, and a deepening culture of fear. Exploiting this are a complex constellation of fast-growing “security” industries who are profiting massively from largely urban markets for new sensing, communications, tracking and surveillance systems. Moreover, these recent attacks have led to widespread calls, especially from right-wing commentators, for the radical redesign of the physical, technical, and social architectures of cities in order to fight some putative “new enemy within”.
After 9/11, for example, many US urban commentators called for an acceleration of sprawl and an end to skyscraper construction so that iconic urban targets were less likely to attract similar attacks. After London 7/7, proposals to “securitize” the London “Tube” with airport-style screening, or to extradite Muslim clerics allegedly “preaching hate”, have been widely debated in the UK. Across the major cities of the Western world, policy-makers addressing transport, immigration, urban design, architecture, community policing, and social policy have suddenly been forced to concern themselves with how their work might become “counter-terrorist” and address the vague and all-pervasive imperatives of “security”.
Strikingly, though, these responses and reactions have been notably diverse. In the US and UK – the key players in the “Global War on Terror” – terrorism has been portrayed as an existential threat to “freedom”, “democracy” or “civilization”, necessitating both a radical securitization of cities and aggressive military action across the world. Elsewhere in Europe, however, the shrill calls to military action have been much more muted. Terrorism, instead, has been portrayed more as a public safety threat than some existential threat to society as a whole.
Can rethinking, or redesigning the forms and processes of Western cities really prevent catastrophic terror attacks? What might the possible dangers be in attempting to rethink urbanism so as to apprehend this “enemy”? In what follows, by way of introduction to this collection, I will explore three key points that, I would argue, need to be central to any discussion on the links between terrorism and contemporary Western cities.

Transnational urbanism / Transnational terror

My first point is that terror attacks are, in their own way, horrific moments that reveal some of the complex dynamics of “transnational urbanism” – as Michael Peter Smith termed it.1 Such attacks demonstrate the inevitable porosity of Western urban sites to the transnational networks that cross-cut and constitute them as much as any global financial marketplace, cultural mediascape or commodity chain. Disaffected and radicalized Islamists, either directly linked to transnational terror groups, or using TV and the Internet to imitate the latter’s tactics, become convinced that martyrdom will avenge Western and Israeli military assaults on the everyday sites, spaces, and lives of Muslim cities and their residents. Internet sites help to propagate the extreme ideologies of martyrdom, dehumanization, and hatred necessary to recruit potential attackers.
Be they second- or third-generation citizens of Western nations – as in London – or visitors with temporary visas or immigration documents, attackers do not require access to substantial military hardware. In their eyes, cities, particularly Western cities, consist of, and are constituted by, an infinite number of “soft targets”. These embedded urban assets – which make it possible for transitional cities to function in the first place – can easily be turned into devastating non-conventional weapons. The very technologies and infrastructures that were key to Enlightenment hopes that “Man” would triumph over “Nature” have become, instead, the Achilles’ heel of Western cities and their residents.
Thus, airplanes, hijacked by a few terrorists wielding box-cutters, become suicidal cruise missiles, which, when carefully flown into the world’s largest modernist structures, bring about devastation akin to a tactical nuclear attack. The world’s TV networks, zoomed in on Manhattan, provided the perfect form of transmission for the terrorists’ message as it broadcast the second plane’s impact “live” across the globe: you are our target and nowhere is safe. Invariably crowded buses, subways, and suburban trains provide confined spaces where devastation, bloodshed, and media frenzy can be maximized. The very bodies of the perpetrators become both perfect camouflage and perfect weapon, mingling unnoticeably into the vast ebb and flow of the contemporary, globalized city. Smart new technologies like the Internet and mobile phones provide triggers (as with the Madrid attacks), as well as the means to plan and coordinate attacks, acquire technical information on bomb-making, and deliver triumphant propaganda after the fact.
When extended to tourist sites of leisure and pleasure (as with the two sets of attacks on tourist cities in Bali), a further purpose is clear: to undermine notions of bodily safety and security – an essential element of Western urbanism – and to promulgate the fear that the banal sites, spaces, and technologies of the Westernized cityscape can erupt in moments of death and destruction at any moment, regardless of geographic location.

The dilemmas of urban anti-terrorism

My second point is that once people become radicalized to the point of committing themselves to urban suicide attacks, the prospects of preventing those attacks are limited. Improving the efforts of security agencies to generate intelligence that would make it possible to intercept attackers before they strike, offers the best immediate hope for undermining further attacks. Whilst there have been some successes in this area, improving intelligence is extremely difficult. With many attackers apparently imitating the broader ideologies and tactics of Al-Qaeda and their like, and attackers with Western citizenships volunteering for the job (as with London 7/7), it is all too easy for attacks to be planned using readily available materials and information without being detected. However, Western police and intelligence agencies could certainly improve their coordination and information-gathering and exchange, thereby improving their chances of stopping attackers before they strike.
As detailed in this collection, major efforts are currently underway to re-engineer strategic urban spaces and infrastructures so that they are equipped with increasingly sophisticated surveillance systems. Many precedents apply here. The financial center of London, for example, was wrapped in a “Ring of Steel” during the 1990s to counter IRA bomb attacks. Roads were closed and a “wall” of smart CCTV sensors was strung up around the area. These automatically scan for “abnormal” events such as stolen cars being driven in or cars driving the “wrong way” down one-way streets.
As well as providing a massive profitability boost to global constellations of security, military and corrections corporations, the post 9/11 “surveillance surge” may, in some instances, allow for known terrorist suspects to be tracked more easily. “Defensive” urban design can help to minimize the damage of terrorist bombings on strategic urban spaces. For example, metal detectors can help to secure vulnerable buildings. But there are stark limitations here. For one, any secure boundary will always remain somewhat permeable to determined attackers. There are no “quick fixes” and “sil-ver bullets” when the population willing to commit terrorist attacks is utterly indistinguishable from the general population of a city or state.
Then there are the fundamental permeabilities and almost infinite complexities of contemporary cities. Such cities inevitably rely and depend on complex and open flows of people, goods, commodities, information, images and capital. The permeabilities and complexities of such flows inevitably undermine simple technical solutions to possible terrorist attacks. Technologies fail or do not work as intended. Systems always have blind spots. The human vigilance that backs up technologies wavers – a weakness that can be exploited by determined attackers.
Moreover, the fact that the very fabric of a city is constituted through what terrorists see as “soft targets” makes it extremely difficult to defend against determined suicide bombers who have reached the launching point for their attacks. The hopes attached to emerging technologies, too, may be false. Face-recognition CCTV, for example, which is being heralded by military and security technology companies as a means of tracking known suspects, is only effective when people stand in line in decent lighting conditions, and can be carefully scrutinized at what sociologists call “obligatory passage points” (in airports or sports stadiums, for example). In the mélée of city streets, with rapidly varying weather, light, and facial angles, face recognition is rather ineffective.
Furthermore, the unplanned side-effects of radical urban anti-terrorist policies might be extremely damaging for urban life in the broader sense. Attempts to turn the mélée of city life into a system of securitized points of passage where every per-son is surveilled, scrutinized, and matched up to facial or other ID databases, could quickly make urban life untenable and intolerable. Successful cities, after all, are based on the freedom to move and interact; on the power of serendipitous contact; on the sheer creative proximity of dense and unpredictable mixture.
The worry here, then, is that attempts will be made by governments (and the security-military-industrial complexes which have burgeoned since the advent of the “war on terror”) to re-engineer cities so that the porous, open, and intrinsically unpredictable spaces and systems become little more than an endless series of securitized passage points (either visible or invisible). If this were to happen, the millennia-old tradition of urban anonymity would be sacrificed. The very vibrancy that marks all successful cities might simply be engineered away. And the democratic civil liberties attained through social and political struggle over centuries might be abandoned in the name of “fighting terrorism”. With the pervasive mantra of “security” creeping over every domain of public life and public policy – which previously were dominated by other concerns such as urban design, social welfare, immigration policy, transportation management, and city planning – there is a real risk that with the excuse of stopping terrorists before they strike, the very processes of interchange, interconnection, privacy, political mobilization, and social and democratic innovation that make cities livable, dynamic, creative and successful, might be seriously undermined.
The chances are, though, that the effort to “securitize” every domain of public life might be hampered by an unlikely source: big business. Indeed, if borders and movement within and between cities were to be placed under an ever-intensifying armory of continuous checks and exclusions, ironically, the mobility and freedom required by transnational urbanism and global capitalism may also be severely undermined. Since 9/11, many US corporations have complained that they have suffered major losses by not being able to bring in employees, affiliates, recruits and colleagues from around the world due to the extreme tightening of US national borders.
But radical urban securitization strategies involve another major risk. The reliance of Western law enforcement and intelligence agencies on crude profiling techniques, which place citizen and resident Arabs and Muslims under extreme scrutiny, restriction, and in some cases, detention without trial, has, in many cases, served only to deepen a sense of grievance, marginalization, and criminalization already prevalent in these communities. Coupled with the widespread demonization of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood movies and mainstream Western media, many people living in Arab neighborhoods in Western cities feel like they have been living in a state of siege since 9/11. The shift towards pre-emptive and anticipatory profiling, surveillance, and incarceration, only furthers the risks that whole communities might be criminalized because of their risks of possible association with “terrorists” defined, in advance, based on ethnic or “racial” categorization.
Facing rising racist violence, arson, and murder, and increasing levels of repression at the hands of security forces, many in such communities feel that they are branded as terrorists even though they condemn terrorist attacks and have long been working to reduce the power of radical Islamist ideologies and recruitment networks. After 9/11, this backlash gained force, despite the diversity of the people who died that day. The 44 nationalities represented among the victims – some illegal immigrants and others naturalized or native-born “Americans” – were all but forgotten. Instead, these figures were nationalized posthumously as US citizens whose deaths demanded a transnational “war on terror” legitimizing massive military assaults on Arab cities, regions and nations.

Ending the circle of atrocity?

In the end, then – and this is my third point – the only sustainable way of preventing catastrophic terror attacks against Western cities and their residents is to address the grievances which make it possible for radical Islamist ideologies and ideologues to successfully recruit and radicalize large numbers of activists and attackers in the first place. Technical or military assaults rarely end terrorist campaigns. Even Pentagon specialists now admit that the catastrophic US-UK invasion of Iraq has led to the biggest growth in terrorist recruitment in recent history, a process that seems certain to lead to more attempted or realized attacks against Western cities in the future.
In the long run, only political and geopolitical change, which addresses political and geopolitical injustices, and their perceptions, can reduce the supply of recruits, and render violence illegitimate among those who might otherwise have explicitly or implicitly condoned it. Moreover, quasi-imperial military assaults against cities or states allegedly harboring “terrorists” only result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and – as even the CIA has admitted in the case of the US-UK invasion of Iraq – serve as massive recruitment aids to terrorist and insurgent groups.
Here a grim irony presents itself, one which urbanists are in a good position to spot. Terrorist acts against Western cities and their inhabitants mirror prevalent Western policies of inflicting catastrophic violence upon Islamic urban centers and their inhabitants. Of course, the means of delivering the violence could not differ more starkly: “smart bombs” and “cluster bombs” vs. the corporeal immediacy of the suicide bomber; laser and GPS-targeting via drones and jet fighters vs. lone perpetrators boarding a train, plane or bus; media-obsessed “shock and awe” campaigns orchestrated via satellite vs. low-grade propaganda web sites and grainy video footage of murdered civilians, “martyrs”, and “victorious” attacks on “infidels”. But both share deep similarities. Both strategies target the everyday urban spaces and systems of the “enemy” indiscriminately in order to project symbolic violence and coercive power aimed at mass-media consumption. Both either deliberately try to kill as many innocent civilians as possible, or callously disregard the inevitability that many innocent civilians will die. Finally, on both sides, the complex social and cultural fabrics forged by the dynamics of transnational urbanism are systematically ignored so that such cities can be essentialized, demonized and dehumanized as preludes to violent attacks against them. Thus, state terror begets holy terror (and vice versa). A circle of atrocity emerges with both sides proclaiming themselves as righteous victims requiring revenge and justice through violence. And the everyday sites, symbols, and infrastructures of the city become the key targets of this new form of transnational, networked warfare.
The real challenge, then, is not to securitize or redesign Western cities against imminent terrorist attacks. Rather, it is to assert the power, strength, value, and inevitability of a mixed-up transnational urbanism in the face of both violent nationalist and imperialist projects, and extremist religious ideologies. Only then might the racist foreign policies of Western states, with their catastrophic targeting of Arab and Muslim cities and their residents, and the reign of holy terror promulgated by Al-Qaeda and their imitators, be undermined.
The place to start is the crucially important acknowledgement that, in an intensely globalizing and urbanizing world, transitional urbanism will inevitably create cities which are hybrid and infinitely complex jumbles of difference.2 This leads to four concluding points. First, in this world, all notions of national, ethnic, or religious purity – including the simplistic and incendiary notion of an “enemy within” some putatively homogenous, national, imagined community – amount to little but calls to violence. Second, all attacks against the urban everyday spaces of transnational, mixed-up cities, will end in the killing and injuring of people from a vast kaleidoscope of national, ethnic, and social communities. Third, in such a world, a transnational civil society, which works to marginalize extremist and violent national, ethnic, and religious ideologies, is the only hope. Fourth, such a society can only be based on the key building blocks of the diverse and “mongrel” urban spheres that are key to our globalizing age.3 And fifth, successful transnational cities demonstrate that the diversities of this world can live side by side with something akin to collective tolerance (or at least in a state where inevitable frictions and grievances need not spiral catastrophically into cycles of atrocity). Destroy and erode this crucial role of cities through over-zealous anti-terrorist strategies, in the West and the Middle East, and the dance of death will only gain momentum.

The symposium

The aim of the Symposium “Architectures of Fear”, held at CCCB on the 16th and 17th May 2007, was to reflect upon the ideology of fear that has characterized the international scene since 9/11. My purpose, as academic director for the event, was to bring together reflections from leading international scholars in an unusually wide range of relevant disciplines. These encompassed architecture, sociology, communications studies, city planning, geography, international politics and philosophy. Discussion at the event explored in detail ways in which terrorism and counter-terrorism are reshaping the politics of security in the West, its impact on city design and politics, and the difficulties these challenges, and their manipulation, throw down for the nature of urbanism and contemporary democracy.
The debate, and this volume, forms part of an ongoing CCCB series reflecting on the intersections of power and territory. This began in 2004 with the “Frontiers” cycle after which followed the debates on “Urban Traumas” (2004) and the “Archipelago of Exception” (2005).

1. Smith, Michael Peter, Transnational Urbanism, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

2. Graham, Stephen (ed.), Cities, War and Terrorism, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

3. Sandercock, Leonie, Cosmopolis I: Mongrel Cities in the 21st Century, London and New York: Continuum, 2003.

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