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Terror effect dies away

The three cities, London, Mumbai and New York, have recovered smartly, writes Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2005 20:30 IST

In terms of disasters, cities face being struck by natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fire or from man-made disasters such as war and terror attacks. If one observes cities over a long term on how they react and how they recover, one will see that their reaction and recovery is mainly a function of the government (presence and effectiveness) and
civic groups (formation, presence and effectiveness). Having been through a series of terror attacks, London seems to have recovered quite nicely, thank you very much. It is now just a couple of months since the bombings and life is back to normal, fear seems to have died away, there are no visible signs of damage and things are tickety boo. On the other hand, the terrorists were aiming at London as a symbol to attack, but it looks like the effect has died away rather soon. Why would terrorists attack cities, when cities are very resilient and can negate their terror symbolism rather rapidly?

I got hold of a book which I would normally not even glance at, called as "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster", edited by Lawrence J Vale and Thomas J Campanella. It is a collection of essays divided into three parts. The first part concerns itself with the narratives of disasters. The second part talks about the dimensions of reconstruction and recovery and the third part talks about how politics affect city reconstruction. It’s a fascinating book, written by town planners and architects. They talk about disaster struck cities such as Oklahoma City – terrorism, San Francisco; Tangshan; Mexico City; Tokyo – earthquake (and fire) and Berlin; Washington, Jerusalem, Warsaw, Beirut and Gernika – war.

What was the extent of damage, how did the damage occur, what were the initial reactions of the population, how did the city fathers decide that the city will be rebuilt and how sustenance (in terms of food, clothing, shelter, rebuilding etc) was provided (or not as the case might be).

The authors also talk about how politics come into the picture such as the rebuilding of Berlin and Mexico City. How the crass incompetence of the Mexican authorities made the downfall of the dominant political party a reality. An enthralling book and comes highly recommended for anybody who has an interest in understanding cities and their behaviour after disasters.
But we were talking about terrorism in cities.

If I take a straw poll of cities affected by terror attacks over the past couple of decades, it looks like most of the big cities in the world have been affected. Tokyo, Jakarta, Manila, Calcutta, Srinagar, New Delhi, Mumbai, Colombo, Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo, Jerusalem, Beirut, Baghdad, Ankara, Tunisia, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Milan, Rome, Frankfurt, Paris, London, etc. etc. If I take a step back and ruminate, ok, so each of these cities was hit by terrorists, what has been the long term impact?

It sounds very brutal. There were many innocent lives lost and much material damage occurred. The loss of a loved one will keep on hurting and paining for a very long time, if it ever goes away completely. There might be a plaque and even a memorial, some historians will keep it alive in their dusty archives, there may be legal cases trundling along, but by and large, the terror attack is generally incorporated into the history or mythology of the city, where it disappears into the broader overall city narrative.

For example, the cities which I mentioned above, each had terrorist attacks which killed people and did damage. Today, when you are reading the column, can you seriously say that the terror attacks did some substantial long term damage? You will legitimately ask me, compared to what? Well, compared to war damage. Take the example of cities which were obliterated or significantly destroyed by war. The situation is mixed in that case. Carthage, Nalanda, Somnath, Berlin, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Dresden, Leningrad, Tokyo etc. are some of the names which come to mind. Some recovered rather quickly after they were devastated such as Berlin, Dresden, Leningrad and Tokyo, but some faded from memory such as Carthage and Nalanda, while some took very long to recover, such as Baghdad after Gulf War I. It can be legitimately claimed that destruction of the city had an impact large enough to seriously impact civilisation growth such as in Baghdad and Nalanda.

Let us take three cities, London, Mumbai and New York, which suffered some of the most potent destructions (both in terms of loss of life and damage to physical infrastructure). They have recovered smartly and there is nary a sign of the damage caused. Yes, the twin towers have gone now, and will never again adorn the New York horizon, but it has been turned into a clean,
nicely organised zone which means recovery is well underway. The twin towers will soon be replaced with the "Freedom Tower" and then the last gaping hole will be filled. So for all practical purposes, within ten years or so, the effect dies away. In the smaller incidents, it hardly takes a month or so before everything is tidied up, things go back to normal and there is nothing to show that there was a terrorist incident, except for some bad memories and some legal cases.

If this is indeed the case, then why would terrorists go after such resilient structures? Why would they like to figuratively punch water or jelly? We know these chaps are smart and their target selection is usually spot on, so why target cities? It is obvious that for operational purposes, cities are the best choice. I wouldn’t see Al-Qaeda have the same impact if they bombed a barn in Sudsbury-upon-Thames killing four cows and two sad chickens? The literal impact is big, it is easy to escape, the density of population is high, so that the fatal impact is greater, the support infrastructure is there, policing is necessarily patchy, so on and so forth.

But these are operational reasons for selecting a city. Why select a city when there will be no sign of the impact in a few years time? Somnath and Jerusalem, after having been thoroughly sacked and devastated, stand as monuments to the power of the conquerors. If as is the case so many times in these devastated cities, devastation of a city is a way to send a message that resistance is futile and the citizens might as well as surrender and not think of rebellion.

The half life of a terrorist event is very short and as we have seen, the impact dribbles away relatively quickly. If the objective of terrorists is to win or to convince the enemy to undertake some course of action, they have to keep on bombing and blowing up innocents like they do in Iraq on almost a daily basis, otherwise it simply does not work. What lessons can we draw from this? The main lesson to draw from this basis is exactly what British Prime Minister Tony Blair and London Mayor Ken Livingstone adopted.

They concentrated on talking and doing something about the factors which made the city (and on a broader level – the British nation) more resilient. Besides the normal security reactions, they talked about the courage of the inhabitants; the past history when Londoners have suffered grievously (during World War II and the IRA bombing campaign) but still managed to survive; how London got back on its feet in a matter of days; how Londoners helped each other in the aftermath of disaster; visible and public expressions of condolence and sympathy towards the dead and injured – all designed to bolster and strengthen the city’s resiliency.

The second aspect is to try to repair all damaged infrastructure as soon as possible. This was done at record speed and when the recovery/ repair process was tough, they communicated at great length to make sure everybody was understanding about the delay and could work with or around it.

There is nothing like seeing damaged buildings and infrastructure to keep on reminding people of the tragedy that they suffered. I daresay that if the bus hadn’t been bombed, then the city would have psychologically recovered even faster because there would seriously be no "shocking" images. The oxygen of publicity for these terrorists would have been seriously depleted.

I do not think that the London terrorists really have thought their action through on a long term basis (not that I mind – please keep on thinking small). Mind you, in a way – this is the perfect revenge. First they reach heaven and instead of 72 virgins, all they get is a bowl of 72 shrivelled raisins. Or worse, a 72 year old virgin (sorry, mate, typo in the book) Second, when they are boasting about their "brave" deed, their fellow jehadis would lean over the edge and go, ummm, so what did you say you damaged and who all have you killed? No visible signs at all. I wish those expressions could be captured. To describe it in another way, their expression would resemble a man biting into an apple and finding half a maggot inside the bite. And it couldn’t happen to a better man, I say.

Till then, London will survive, flourish and poke these jehadis in their eyes. Nicholas Monsarrat wrote ages ago: The marvellous maturity of London! I would rather be dead in this town than preening my feathers in heaven.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(The opinion expressed herein are strictly the author's and do not reflect the positions, official or otherwise, of any firm or organisation, that the author is associated with at the present or has been in the past or may be in future. Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently lives in the City of London and works there in various capacities in the Banking Sector.)

First Published: Aug 26, 2005 17:24 IST