Friday, November 13, 2015

The Urbanization of Insecurity

Tonight Paris has been the scene of an unspeakable atrocity. As President Obama said just a few hours ago, "This is an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share." It is also, once again, an attack on a city--one in a growing list of examples of the urbanization of insecurity.

Cities have long been subject to attack. The burning of Washington in 1814 and the destruction of Atlanta in 1864 provide examples familiar to Americans. But prior to the twentieth century, cities were generally targeted at or near the end of a successful military campaign; they were not generally attacked as a desperate tactic of the weak in an attempt to turn the tables on the strong. Urban terrorism, like the aerial bombardment of cities that preceded it (also called "terrorism" by those who experienced it), is a form of asymmetric warfare--a mode of attack that avoids the adversary's strengths and zeroes in on its vulnerabilities, even if such a mode of attack is considered barbaric or "an attack on . . . the universal values that we share."

Consider the pattern that has emerged in recent years.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, appeared to present a new form of terrorism. After all, roughly nine times more people died in the World Trade Center on 9/11 than had died in the January 1985 Air India bombing over the Irish Sea, which had previously been the deadliest terrorist attack in history. What made the 9/11 attacks different from the many terrorist attacks that had gone before were their sophistication and their manifest intent to kill as many people as possible. But there were precursors to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The unsuccessful effort in 1993 to bring down the World Trade Center in retrospect appears to have been a harbinger of things to come. It was an attack intended to inflict mass casualties, as was the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo attack in Tokyo. In the latter case, an apocalyptic Japanese cult calling itself Supreme Truth attempted to spread sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system. The attack, motivated by the group's belief that it was destined to rule Japan, was preceded by a multimillion-dollar effort to manufacture and test biological weapons. Ten times between 1990 and 1995, Aum Shinrikyo attempted to spread biological agents in and around Tokyo. For various reasons (some illustrating the difficulty of working with biological weapons), not a single person was killed in any of these attacks. Consequently, Aum Shinrikyo turned its attention to chemical weapons. In the Tokyo subway attack, twelve people were killed and over a thousand were injured. Still more experienced some form of severe psychological trauma.

An incident similar to the deadliest part of tonight's attack in Paris occurred in Moscow in October of 2002 when fifty Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater during a performance, taking approximately 700 hostages. The terrorists, who wired themselves and the building with explosives, demanded that Russia end its war against separatists in Chechnya. At least 129 people died in the theater, most from a toxic gas Russian forces pumped into the building prior to the raid that brought the ordeal to a conclusion.

On the morning of March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on commuter trains in downtown Madrid. The detonation of the bombs was a coordinated effort, with all ten exploding within minutes of 8:00 a.m. In addition to the ten bombs that exploded, police located and safely detonated three other bombs. After the attack, it was determined that 191 people died and approximately 1,800 people were injured in the blasts. Initially, the attack was thought to be the work of the Basque separatist group ETA, but it was later found that Islamic extremists, inspired by an al Qaeda call for attacks on Spain, were responsible.

A little over a year later, on July 7, 2005, three bombs exploded in the London Underground while a fourth bomb exploded on one of the city’s iconic red double-decker buses. These explosions all occurred at the height of the city’s morning rush hour, effectively bringing the city to a standstill while rescue crews rushed to help those trapped both above and below ground. After extensive rescue efforts and searches, the final count was fifty-two people dead and more than 950 injured. The attacks, suicide bombings executed by four British men, all of whom had no known terrorist background or affiliation, highlighted the danger cities face not only from foreigners but from their own citizens as well.

On November 26, 2008, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba launched a brutal and carefully planned attack on multiple locations in Mumbai, India. The attack spanned three days as ten gunmen indiscriminately killed Indians and foreigners alike in highly populated areas, including a hospital, a Jewish center, a café, and two hotels. The attackers, all well prepared, continually eluded capture by Indian police and counter-terrorism units. Indeed, in the aftermath of the attacks, there was much controversy over how ten gunmen could cause so much destruction and fight off Indian forces for three days within a single city. Overall, 164 were killed and 308 were injured.

What these cases tell us is that cities are vulnerable--and thus are tempting targets for extremists. While an effective response by well-prepared police or military units can mitigate the impact of urban terrorism, there seems to be little that can be done to prevent attacks like those that have occurred in Paris, Mumbai, London, Madrid, Moscow, and other cities. Governments seeking answers where there are few to be found are likely to use more military force abroad and more electronic surveillance at home. And they will face pressure from their most reactionary citizens to turn away refugees, notwithstanding the fact that refugees, far from being the problem, are themselves fleeing terrorists.

The world's most vibrant and prosperous cities are places of great diversity with the tolerance needed to match and nurture it. They are threatened most by intolerance, whether homegrown in the form of racist policemen or imported in the form of religious extremists. Unfortunately, the very qualities--diversity and tolerance--that make a city like Paris so attractive are also the ones that make it so vulnerable. And this fact, I fear, leaves us little to work with in trying to address the urbanization of insecurity.