A deeply disturbing development that has been buried under the debris of war talk is the fact that since 1998, in a major historical reversal, most of the deaths and injuries from terrorism have occurred in cities. Any blowback from bombing Iraq, such as an increase in terrorism, is likely to be targeted at cities rather than at military bases. When Bush seeks to persuade the American people to support the bombing of Iraq, he should acknowledge that this would raise the risk of terrorist attacks in US cities.
Cities all over the world have long been targets of such attacks. What is new is the sharp increase in the likelihood that they will be attacked. The State Department’s 2001 report, Patterns of Global Terrorism, shows a rise in urban targets over the decade. Using the data from that report, Hank Savitch and Grigoriy Ardashev show in Urban Studies that from 1993 to 2000, cities accounted for 94 percent of the injuries resulting from all terrorist attacks, and for 61 percent of the deaths. Moreover, in the past decade the number of incidents doubled, rising especially sharply after 1998. By contrast, in the 1980s hijacked airplanes accounted for a larger share of terrorist deaths and destruction than they did in the 1990s.
There are several reasons that cities have become central sites for a range of terrorist activities: They are centers of power; they are a focus of media attention; they are sufficiently mixed and dense that terrorists can live and organize in them without attracting too much attention. A handful of cities have particular symbolic value because of a mix of historical, political and sometimes economic factors. New York, London and Paris–global cities strategic to the world economy that also have unique political histories–are among the target cities in the State Department data. Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Rome are all key nodes in an international network of regional conflicts in which they are targets because they are highly visible sites for communicating a message to a specific audience. In New York and Washington, it was the economic and military power of the United States that was being hit; New York itself was a target because of its communicative capabilities rather than because it was seen as the enemy as such.
This information has taken on new significance because the US government’s antiterrorism war has inflamed the global South and multiplied the incentives for organized and disorganized terrorist acts. The data on the vulnerability of cities tell us the price we may pay for not listening to the governments in the Arab world and indeed to our own military and intelligence officials, who say that a war on Iraq is not the way to reduce the threat of terrorism.
The Bush Administration regularly warns Americans of the certainty of a major attack inside the United States. But this is used as an argument to persuade us that we need to bomb Iraq. The Bush team has yet to acknowledge that our military escalation could result in increased civilian deaths right here at home. (Of course, we cannot forget that Iraqi civilians would suffer the most from this war, with the number of likely Iraqi direct and indirect victims estimated at 1.4 million by the United Nations.)
As the United States deploys its massive military apparatus in the gulf area, there are several reasons to expect that terrorist attacks in response to the possible war on Iraq would be principally directed outside the region: (1) the increasingly decentralized and world-spanning networks of organized terrorism; (2) the extreme asymmetry between the matériel of terrorist organizations and that of US military forces in the gulf area; (3) the relatively greater ease of urban attacks in terms of both organization and execution, especially in large cities; and (4) the high visibility of urban attacks–an instantaneous global media event. What had been a dyad of military against military with civilian losses as “collateral damage” would become a triangulation with the civilian populations as a key target.
Could it be that using the $50 billion to $200 billion we would have to spend on a war on Iraq for projects other than war might be more effective? Could it be, for instance, that building infrastructure, developing health services and other public projects that create employment might be more effective in reducing the anger and despair that might be leading small but growing numbers of the young to commit terrorist acts? We could choose to use our superior technical resources to pursue what is ultimately a very small group of active terrorists rather than bomb a country that our own military tells us is not really the biggest threat right now and has indeed been contained. Wouldn’t that make the world a safer place for us and our allies?