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Attacks in London

07.07.2005 10:42 | DISPATCHES

Needless to say this morning's bombings are appalling. It bothers me that almost four years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden is still at large, and that much of the public and (it seems) military's attention is directed elsewhere. Obviously the situation in Iraq demands our attention, but the fact that bin Laden was able to orchestrate 9/11 and elude authorities for this long must certainly encourage anyone else out there hoping to strike a major western city. Let's step up the hunt for bin Laden and Al Quaeda. We've allowed ourselves to become distracted and now we are paying a high price.

On a more technical note: cities make attractive targets for terrorists for two reasons. The first is that good urbanism often means less good security. High population density and ease of access are what most people admire in great cities, but this can also translate into a target-rich environment with little chance of detection. The best cities offer anonymity within crowds, which is why geniuses of all kinds--business, political, and criminal--find urban environments rewarding.

The second attraction of cities lies in their aesthetics. Terrorism is, of course, crime--but it is also theater. Good urban landscapes lend themselves to drama, and the impact of an attack--its capacity to both sow fear and inspire other attacks--is magnified by its being set in an urban landscape. (See Tyler Cowen's recent paper on terrorism as theater, from a conference at George Mason university on the political economy of terror).

A corollary to this is that as urban design gets worse, security often improves. The amount of damage a 20 lb bomb does on a highway is much less than in a subway or bus. Attacking Brasilia, with its isolated towers, does less damage and carries less aesthetic weight than attacking New York. For urban planners, one of the great dilemmas of terrorism is managing threats in a way that doesn't compromise what makes cities like New York and London great.

This is a serious dilemma. The burgeoning field of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CEPTED) seems to hold some promise, but the fact is that good cities are often premised on the idea of a good society. And this makes them vulnerable. But building cities on any other premise would be intolerable--intolerable for people who live and work in cities and an intolerable concession to people--like those whose foul work was on display in London this morning--who would rather we have no society at all.


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