03 August 2005

Cities and Terrorism

Conservative scholar Joel Kotkin argued in his article "City of the Future" in the Washington Post, that tighter immigration laws, preventive detention, widespread surveillance of suspected terrorists, and measures to force immigrants to assimiliate (like forced immersion into the national language and political institutions) is necessary for cities to survive. Without these measures, he argues, the modern city, because it fails to provide security, will go the way to Rome. He is wrong.

He dismisses the notion, out of hand, that economic causes, like energy, food and water shortages, as opposed to security, could be the cause of urban declines. As modern examples he cites cities like Baltimore and Detroit. Certainly, those cities have declined and certainly, security has been a problem that has pushed people out of those cities. But, one has to be blind not to see the crime waves for what they are, a direct consequence of the demise of manufacturing jobs in the United States, as they have given way both to automation and to foreign production (both in the form of foreign competition and off shoring of jobs).

He notes that "terrorists have attacked . . . transporation systems to kill more than 11,000 people in cities from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Baghdad to Madrid and London." This is true, but deceptive. The number of deaths due to terrorism aimed at both Madrid and London has been modest and the number of attacks that have killed people can be counted on your fingers. (I'm surprised he didn't add Tokoyo, which had a single incident in its subway system for additional effect). Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have endure hundreds of suicide bus bombings. But, those very examples show the flaw in his security is necessary for a city to endure theory. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are still vibrant cities where people still use the buses, and it is unfair treatment of Palestinians which has created their problem, not insufficiently harsh treatment. Likewise, Beruit still thrives despite its bloody history. And, we all know that Jack the Ripper did not dent London's population growth. There is, as he notes, epic levels of crime in Johannesburg, yet it is also in many respect one of the most vibrant cities in sub-Saharan Africa.

New York has had one of the most diverse and least assimilated immigrant populations in the world since before the United States existed. It has also endured two terrorist attacks on the same complex of symbolic buildings. Notably, the second and more deadly one was not committed by New Yorkers. And, notably, New York City is safer now than it was in the 1970s, when an economic recession let crime take hold.

He notes the influx of Muslims into Montreal and Toronto (he could easily have added Detroit). He fails to note that none of these cities has seen a single incident of Islamic terrorism. The most recent incident of terrorism most close to Toronto was the assassination of a doctor who did abortions in Buffalo, by an American Christian fundamentalist. Oklahoma City isn't known for its cultural diversity either. The terrorist who struck it was another right wing American.

It took about 400 armed insurgents to sustain the troubles in Northern Ireland for decades, despite 10,000 British troops deployed to stop them. How did so few prove effective against so many? Because a hundred times as many were willing to not cooperate with the British troops in apprehending them. The best surveillance of would be terrorists doesn't come from domestic anti-terrorism agencies, it comes from domestic and immigrant populations in communities terrorists come from who are willing to report suspicious behavior before an attack can be carried out. Kotkin decries London Mayor Ken Livingstone for welcoming conservative Egyptian cleric Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi to his city. But, it is worth noting that the people who carried out the attacks on London subways weren't Egyptians -- they were British nationals of Pakistani origins. Had Livingstone tried to suppress that cleric, those bombers could easily have been Egyptians.

Immigration laws can't prevent your own citizens from committing terrorist acts. Terrorist acts like those committed in the London subways. Terrorist acts in many cases committed by American citizens in Oklahoma City, in Buffalo and in Atlanta. Special terrorism laws aren't necessary either. The civil courts successfully imprisoned the first World Trade Center figures. They have also prosecuted, convicted and punished the Oklahoma City bombing principals, the Buffalo and Atlanta terrorists, and a terrorist mentioned in Kotlin's article who entered the United States from Canada planning to attack the Los Angeles International Airport.

Terrorism is rare. It is a form of war. It comes from people who believe that a government is illegitimate, people who haven't gotten a fair shake in the legal/political process and as a result have felt entitled to ignore it. Walls don't protect cities. Cities are made safe by the loyalty of their people.

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