Tue, Mar 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Terrorist attacks force us to consider what it means to live in cities

By Madeleine Bunting  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It was not enough for the office workers of Madrid to observe a moment of silence, they had to be seen doing so: they stood in the rain on the street. The stoical, wordless dignity of the Spanish people's solidarity has been profoundly moving and inspiring.

Just as terrorism uses modern media -- what Jean Baudrillard called the "spectacle of the deed" -- to publicize itself through the horrific images of blood, death and twisted metal, so the Spanish people instantaneously found a way to counter that violent visual communication with images of spontaneous, mass public demonstrations of solidarity.

New York discovered something of this public spirit, too, after Sept. 11, but it took longer; the shock was greater to a city that had no experience of terrorism (unlike, sadly, Spain). There were no instant mass demonstrations; the flowers and candles -- now a convention of grief all over the globe -- were attached to letters and photographs, and the mourning was personalized. Every country mourns in its own way.

In Spain, the outpouring of sympathy didn't wait for names: it was for somebody's son, somebody's daughter, somebody's wife or mother, husband or father. The very anonymity underlined the simplicity of this kind of human solidarity; it was enough that lives were lost. Whose lives they were will come later. It seemed so quintessentially Spanish; the country of the paseo, the promenade, has an instinctively social culture, and its faith in public solidarity has proved vibrant at the very point of most threat. Fear of more attacks could have forced the Spanish off the streets, could have scared them into their homes. Instead, with a remarkable defiance of the terrorists who deliberately targeted the crowded commuter trains, the crowds refused to be cowed.

Cities have become our battlegrounds; where once they were places of safety to which countryfolk retreated in times of war, they are now where the war is conducted. After March 11 every citizen of a western European city, of Paris, Rome, Berlin or London, nervously enters the packed tube, the busy commuter train or the high-rise office block.

Fear could empty the city and cauterize the mass transit systems that are its lifeblood. One is haunted by an image of shut-down tube stations, of empty streets where weeds break up the Tarmac. We look back on the conviviality of the era before mass terrorism with nostalgic disbelief.

What's at stake is a long history of the city, that exchange point for trade and ideas that has been the crux of all civilizations. The city orders how large numbers of human beings live in close proximity. In so doing, it civilizes and turns strangers into citizens who belong to a civil society in which they treat each other with (more or less) civility. All these words have the same Latin root -- civitas.

What the demonstrations in Spain remind us is that civility -- the measure of goodwill from one stranger to another -- is ultimately what makes a city's spirit. It is the accumulation of tiny, daily interactions with bus conductors, fellow commuters, newspaper sellers and coffee-shop waitresses -- the humor, the greetings, the gestures of help that smooth the rough edges of urban living.

As mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani articulated this civility brilliantly after Sept. 11, but it is often where politicians are lamentably lacking with their instinct to reassure by displaying resolve and the will to control. The role thrust on the head of government is to pursue justice, and all too often that tips into a wrathful vengeance. That was how US President George W. Bush interpreted the mood of his people after Sept. 11, and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar used a similar idiom. It seems space is rarely allowed in the political process for the kinds of responses of ordinary people such as the Spanish woman who said she felt no hate, only sadness; or another who felt she had nothing to say, she had to think over what had happened. The task of reflection and reconciliation once fell to religious leaders, but the decline of faith leaves a vacuum rarely filled by politicians.

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