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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Terrorism and the urban war theatre

The traits that make cities vibrant places to live and work in are also at the heart of what makes them vulnerable

In movies with an apocalyptic tendency, it is not a simple coincidence that compels an oncoming asteroid, extraterrestrials, King Kong, and assorted zombies to attack New York City. In fact, it is common practice for superheroes to battle their arch-nemeses in Times Square. The depictions of urban dystopia in science fiction might be an acknowledgment of a city’s weaknesses taken to imaginative extremes, but where things are happening is a good way to read why they are happening in the first place.

These films are making an important statement about the geopolitical importance of cities as a stage for events to unfold, to be witnessed by more people than the geography permits. The scenes in which the citizens of Tokyo watch the destruction of New York from the television sets of a store is a remark on how damage and fear are not just compounded in cities, they are shared across territory. You hit one city, you hit many.

Now if you switch to a news channel, you might find that real life is not very different. From Istanbul to Dhaka to Brussels and Paris, cities have become war theatres for global terrorism. The locations of various terrorist attacks in cities provide insights into why urban areas across the world have become grounds for target practice. The Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka was located close to many foreign embassies. In Brussels and Istanbul, the attacks happened at airports. In Paris, the mass shootings and explosions were in a stadium during a football match and a theatre during a concert.

Recent attacks in locations across Munich, Aleppo, Orlando, Baghdad and Medina follow a similar pattern of targeting public spaces with dense concentrations of people. Even the slapdash security checks in the Delhi Metro stations can be read as an imprint of this shared fear, a ritualized memory of the blasts in the Mumbai suburban railway in 2006.

It is not for nothing that cities have become both war theatres as well as investment destinations for global capital. Cities are agglomerations of resources and possibilities. They are critical nodes in global exchanges of capital, information, skilled labour and technology. Operations within a city transcend national and territorial boundaries. Part of what enables a city’s economic pre-eminence is its infrastructure of networking, especially in transportation and telecommunications. It facilitates the rapid movement of people, ideas and goods, bringing about a radically mobile and networked urban world. The present discourse on smart cities is advancing this concept of networked infrastructures that will bring together communities, tiers of government, organizations and businesses.

The traits that make cities vibrant places to live and work in—their concentrations, their heterogeneity, their infrastructures, their speeds—are also at the heart of what makes them vulnerable. Airports, public spaces, transport systems and embassies are not arbitrary choices for terror attacks, but calculated readings of what makes a city run and how the impact could be communicated across territories.

Stephen Graham, author of Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, argues that historically, there has been a reciprocal relationship between cities and war. The remains of massive fortifications, moats and ramparts in ancient city-states across Asia, Europe and Africa are testament to the continual threat of war, as well as the fact of their having been the dominant sites of economic, social and political power. Over the centuries, cities have outgrown their boundaries and cordons. In parallel, the threat of aggression is no longer localized to a rival city-state or a colonial aggressor, becoming increasingly decentralized and transnational. Think of how the Islamic State has brought about a franchisee model for terrorism.

The grammar of defence for cities has thus evolved from ramparts and moats to the practice of surveillance, tracking and profiling. The omnipresent security camera is one of the most visible ways in which urban environments are being remade by the threat of violence. Urban areas, Graham contends, have become the lightning conductors for the world’s political violence.

We are at a strange moment in history where we are familiar with terrorism to the point of indifference. Terrorism has become erroneously reducible to religious fundamentalism, which provides at best a partial explanation. It is, therefore, necessary to locate the impulse for terror attacks in political history and uneven economic development across the globe. The rise of the Islamic State cannot be read in isolation from the collapse of the Iraqi state. The fragile Iraqi state, in turn, cannot be explained without taking into account the Sykes-Picot line of 1916 that carved up the erstwhile Ottoman empire’s territories into spheres of British and French influence, thereby creating the tinderbox called the modern Middle East. The violence of this history is enacted in the war-ravaged urban areas of Mosul, Raqqa, Homs and Gaza. The repercussions are experienced in the neighbourhoods and streets of Paris, Munich, Brussels and New York.

At times, apocalypse movies and science fiction need to be approached as guidebooks for an uncertain urban future. At least they are forthright about what will hit us, where we will be hit, and how.

Rihan Najib is a staff writer at Mint.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

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