Ten Years Later: The Pursuit of National Security Is Now the Source of Urban Insecurity

Writing about 9/11 in 2001, right after it had happened, what I saw as an activating field, though not the origin, was the rapacious global political economy Western governments and firms have produced over decades and centuries. By “activating field,” I do not mean a cause, but a type of agency that enables, which might be one of several.1 This activating field has been one factor in many and diverse historic events—some emancipatory, such as the independence movements of the 1960s in Africa, and some brutal and murderous, such as the 9/11 attacks.

Being asked to write about what I see today, ten years later, I am struck by the emergence of yet another activating field—the urbanizing of wars and the associated global projection of even minor attacks. Declaring a “War on Terror” and invading Iraq were critical factors in this process. The alternative, criminalizing 9/11 and using sleuthing rather than bombs as the main tool against terrorism, would have produced a very different outcome.

Making a New Activating Field for Violence

The last ten years have brought two transformations to the fore. First, asymmetric war has become the dominant form of interstate war, a sharp departure from the pattern of World War II and earlier wars in the West. Today, when a conventional army goes to war, it is likely that the enemy is an irregular combatant for whom dense city space is a weapon, one that replaces powerful aircraft and tanks. Secondly, a network effect imbues every minor local act of terrorism with global meaning—each feeds a sort of universalizing of terrorist sites, from the local subway to the international hotel. Neither of these is a good outcome of the vast expense, loss of lives, and destroyed livelihoods the United States and its allies have suffered in the name of fighting terrorism.

The first transformation has meant that the pursuit of national security has become the making of urban insecurity. Asymmetric war—war between a conventional army and armed insurgents—has put the city on the war map as one site for battle. Cities worldwide are a potential theater for asymmetric war, regardless of what side of the divide they are on, allies or enemies, and regardless of whether they are or are not part of the narrow theater of war, be it Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. The new urban war map is expansive: it goes far beyond the actual nations involved. The bombings in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, Mumbai, Lahore, Jakarta, and on are all part of this all-encompassing map, even as each bombing has specific features and can be explained in terms of particular grievances and aims.

With the second transformation, even the most elementary and bungled of these attempts at terrorism can have impact. As material practices, these are localized actions by local armed groups acting independently of each other and often quite rudimentary in their capabilities. Yet they are also clearly part of a new kind of multi-sited war—a distributed and variable set of actions that gain larger meaning with the global projection of a particular conflict. The invasion of Iraq was a conflict with global projection that made it possible for even a minor and otherwise invisible event to become globally meaningful. This combination is dangerous—it is an incentive to execute a terrorist act.

What would have been the trajectory of terrorism if the United States had not invaded Iraq with guns blazing and the full attention of the global news media? Pursuing terrorism as a criminal act rather than an act of war would have entailed sleuthing rather than shooting. It would have minimized the global projection of dispersed terrorism acts because there would have been little, if any, incentive, given merely local visibility. No global meme would have been produced. The invasion and ensuing sharpened violence and sectarianism became an incitement to do something violent because it can garner global media attention.

Caught in a Sticky Web: The Endless War

Many of the elements that came together to produce the disastrous history of killing, ethnic cleansing, and destruction of the basics of daily life that followed the Iraq invasion were not new. It is well known that religious-ethnic divisions are ancient and that they become bloody only under certain combinations of conditions.2

Perhaps less known is the fact that urban terrorism began in the 1990s, long before the 9/11 attacks. The US Department of State’s annual report on global terrorism allows us to establish that since 1998 most asymmetrical attacks, defined by the report as attacks by non-conventional combatants, have been in cities. From 1993 to 2000, cities accounted for 94 percent of injuries resulting from all terrorist attacks and 61 percent of the deaths. In contrast, in the 1980s, hijacked airplanes accounted for a larger share of terrorist deaths and destruction. Urban targets are far more accessible than planes or military installations and now far more likely to be hit.3

Responding to the 9/11 attacks by invading Iraq altered the meaning of such urban attacks. A whole new “project” was enabled and promoted. What might have been a somewhat obscure and restricted set of destructions went global. This brings to mind what John Mearsheimer has called the tragedy of great powers—what happens when great powers fail in necessary self-restraint.4

The rise of asymmetric war as the main kind of war for conventional powers has its own specific consequences. Although these wars can be very diverse, they share a few features: Asymmetric wars are partial, intermittent, and open-ended. There is no armistice to mark their conclusion, disabling the old practice of superior military powers bringing warfare to an end when the destruction becomes too vast and no longer makes sense. The fact that wars can be endless is one indication of how the center no longer holds, whatever the center’s format—the imperial power of a previous period or the nation-state of our modernity.

Here I want to distinguish four types of asymmetric war, though they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One of these is the actual encounter between conventional and unconventional forces on urban terrain, with post-2003 Iraqi cities prominent instances. Under these conditions, the city becomes both a technology for containing superior conventional military powers and a technology of resistance for armed insurgencies. A second is the extension of the space for war beyond the actual “theater of war,” as might be the case with the bombings in London, Madrid, Bali, and elsewhere after the war on Iraq was launched. A third is the embedding of conventional state conflicts in an act of asymmetric war, as might be the case for the Mumbai attacks. And the fourth is the activating by asymmetric war of older conflicts that evolve into armed conflict between two unconventional armed forces, as is the case with the Shiite-Sunni conflicts in Iraq.5

There is a broader, often older history that also has escalated sharply over the last decade—human displacement. This is both one source and one component of that large activating field that emerged in the early 2000s. A feature of contemporary wars, especially evident in less-developed areas, is that they often involve forced urbanization or de-urbanization. Contemporary conflicts produce significant population displacement both into and out of cities. In many cases, as in African conflicts or in Kosovo, displaced people swell urban populations. In other cases, ethnic cleansing, in its diverse variants, expels people, as has been the case in Baghdad with the departures of Sunnis, Christians, and others. Finally, in many diverse contemporary armed conflicts, the warring forces avoid battle or direct military confrontation, a feature described by Mary Kaldor in her work on the new wars.6 Their main strategy is to control territory through the expulsion of “the others,” as defined in terms of ethnicity, religion, tribal membership, and political affiliation. The main tactic is terror—conspicuous massacres and atrocities pushing people to flee.

These types of displacements—with ethnic/religious “cleansing” the most virulent form—are now a growing part of today’s global landscape. Our militarizing of the response to 9/11 was not the cause, but it was a stimulus for, or an authorizing of, expanded armed conflict in already fragile areas.

Finally, this militarizing of conflict, with its attendant security regimes, can have a profound impact on the cosmopolitan character of cities, generating what Richard Sennett calls “the brittle city.”7 Cities have long had the capacity to bring together people of different classes, ethnicities, and religions through commerce, politics, and civic practices. Contemporary conflicts unsettle and weaken this cultural diversity when they lead to forced urbanization or internal displacement. Cities as diverse as Belfast, Baghdad, and Mosul continue to be at risk of becoming an assemblage of separate urban ghettoes as a result of ethnic cleansing, which is destroying their civic character and also thereby one key source of resistance to urban armed conflict. Baghdad has undergone a deep process of such “cleansing,” a major reason for the (relative) “peace” of the last two years—which cannot be a lasting peace.8

Could it be that the systemic equivalent of these types of “cleansings” in our cities is the growing ghettoization of the poor and the rich—albeit in very different types of ghettoes? This leaves it to the middle classes, not always the most diverse group in cities, to bring them urbanity; the risk is that they will supplant traditional urban cosmopolitanisms with narrow defensive attitudes in a world of growing economic insecurity and political powerlessness. Also, under these conditions, displacement from countryside to town or within cities becomes a source of insecurity rather than a source of rich diversity.

A Poor Algorithm for Our and the World’s Safety

Ten years after 9/11, we are less secure in the world, less significant for the world, and we are poorer. The War on Terror consumed vast amounts of our government’s resources, impoverished our government, rewarded many soldiers with unemployment and mental illness, and destroyed the small family enterprises of many of the men and women who served in the military, even as it gave vast riches to arms dealers and the Haliburtons of this world. The evidence suggests that opting for militarizing our response to the horror of 9/11 was a fatally flawed choice.

In short, with all our advanced technology, vast investments in armaments, and will to invade foreign countries, we have produced a poor-quality algorithm to make the world a safer place. The algorithm leaks. And the harder we use it, the more it leaks . . . blood and fanaticism.


Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and co-chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University (www.saskiasassen.com). Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (Norton 2007). She is currently working on When Territory Exits Formal Frameworks (under contract with Harvard University Press). Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

  1. See Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), chap. 8.
  2. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
  3. The reports do not include conventional military action in and against cities. US Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism and Patterns of Global Terrorism, http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/crt/.
  4. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001).
  5. See Saskia Sassen, “When the City Itself Becomes a Technology of War,” Theory, Culture & Society 27, no. 6: 33–50; where I examine how today’s civil wars generate a very specific type of war urbanizing: as control over territory becomes acute, evicting people becomes critical, and refugees flow into cities, which are the last refuge in many cases.
  6. Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006).
  7. Richard Sennett, “The Brittle City,” in Living in the Endless City, ed. Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic (New York: Phaidon Press, 2011). This dual process of urbanization of war and militarization of urban life unsettles the meaning of the urban. Peter Marcuse argues that “the war on terrorism is leading to a continued downgrading of the quality of life in US cities; visible changes in urban form; the loss of public use of public space; restriction on free movement within and to cities, particularly for members of darker-skinned groups; and the decline of open popular participation in the governmental planning and decision-making process” (comments at the Cities and New Wars conference, Columbia University, New York, September 28, 2009, http://cgt.columbia.edu/events/cities_and_new_wars).
  8. In that regard, the current mobilizations in cities, in all their diversity, are a very different way of opening up the city from a peace secured through ethnic cleansing. See Saskia Sassen, “Why Riot Now?” Newsweek, August 15, 2011, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/08/14/why-did-britain-s-riots-happen-now.html.