The impossible city

Saskia Sassen's new book is Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2006).

From global to urban terror

The city has replaced the hijacked plane as the iconic terrorist space. It is not the military or the politicians who are at highest risk when the US and the UK declare a "war on terror". It is city dwellers: 90% of terrorist destruction and 60% of deaths worldwide are urban.

But the US government never says this. There is talk of a shift from "hard" to "soft" targets. I have yet to hear the Bush team say it straight: "You know what, if we got it wrong invading Iraq, it is cities and their people, not only in Iraq, but worldwide, who will suffer the most, not our military people and installations."

There is another point rarely mentioned. Cities are not the enemy. They are targets because they are centres of power and hence can make possible an instant media event, and they are sufficiently mixed and dense that terrorists can live and organize themselves without attracting too much attention.

Yet what needs to be stressed is that the message being sent is often for a specific audience. It is not simply the world. In each case, there are different reasons for the attacks. In New York, it was the economic and military power of the US that was being hit, not New York per se. Cities are, then, concentrated sites with communicative capabilities for different messages. They are not simply the enemy.

As urban attacks can be replicated, another disturbing fact is that poorer countries will lack the surveillance and rebuilding resources of the US and rich European countries. It may once again be the less developed countries that pay the highest price for our war. Their urban targets will be more accessible. What's more likely to be next: New York or Nairobi?



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