Suburbia and terror

Back on December 2, as I was putting the finishing touches on my last blog post, little did I realize the horror that was unfolding about 50 miles due west of my little office here.  That was the day of the San Bernardino shootings.

I have to admit that since that day, I had a really hard time getting my head back into “creative mode,” especially with this blog.  What could I possibly have to say about this, that hasn’t already been said?  And what pain anxiety, sadness, and unease I was feeling, could possibly be any more meaningful that what many, many others were feeling?   I found myself reading obsessively about it in the LA Times, trying to figure out what could have motivated the shooters, that might somehow make sense to me.  Well, I came up with nothing.  I can’t fathom it from my own existential perspective.  And much as I wanted to dive back into the blog on a positive note, it seemed plain wrong to say nothing about it.  So here goes.

With the passage of nearly a month, the sadness and horror has subsided a little, and it’s given me a chance to think about how this — and previous shootings — could possibly link up with suburbia.  My unsettling conclusion is that the suburbs have shifted from a peripheral safe refuge to a center of the action, when it comes to terror.

Consider this.  In the 1950s, when postwar suburbs were spreading like wildfire across the country, national policy makers perceived them in strategic terms, a kind of defensive built landscape in the context of the Cold War.  It wasn’t just the bomb shelters that people were building in their backyards.  It was the sprawl itself that seemed to promise protection.  How much damage could a Soviet-launched nuclear bomb do if everyone was spread out not just within metro areas, but across the country? (a lot, in my opinion, but that was their mindset)  This was part of the thinking behind the 1956 Interstate Highway Act.  As Ken Jackson noted in Crabgrass Frontier, the Bulletin of  the Atomic Scientists devoted a whole issue in 1951 to “Defense through Decentralization.”  The thinking went something like this:  you avoid national destruction in a nuclear attack if you spread everyone out, dispersing people out of large cities and into satellite cities surrounded by miles and miles of suburbs.  Sprawl was the ultimate defense mechanism against the terror threats of the time.  Michael Sorkin, in All Over the Map, similarly called these postwar suburbs a product of “an earlier fear of terror.”

Well, obviously as the terror threats shifted, so did the role of built environments in the calculus of safety itself.  Suburbia has moved from peripherpy to somewhere near the center.  Suburbia has become a critical part of the terror story — as a site of the horrific acts themselves, but also as the place where shooting schemes were hatched and planned.  Suburbia is full of soft targets, the schools, shopping malls, office parks, and the like.  Remember Columbine back in the 1990s, when two kids shot up a high school in Littleton, Colorado, a suburb of Denver? Writer Christopher Caldwell blamed that attack partly on the alienating, “soul destroying” landscape of ticky-tacky Littleton.  Yet other types of suburbs have also been linked to terrorism, places like Molenbeek outside of Brussels, an impoverished,  immigrant suburb which the media reported was a launch pad for the Paris shootings.  And then there’s San Bernardino in the Inland Empire, a satellite city with  numerous suburban neighborhoods, which not too long ago was the epicenter of the foreclosure crisis.  The city itself went bankrupt, and thousands of people lost homes to foreclosure.  It’s a place with its share of recent travails, a vivid symbol of a changing suburbia.

Yet there is no easy correlation between shooters and the type of suburbs where they lived, schemed, and acted – some have been well-off, others poor.  All that seems clear is that suburbia’s very diversity makes it home to a broad range of humanity – the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the engaged and disaffected, including those who would terrorize.

Suburbia, sadly, has caught up to cities — full of vulnerable places where people gather and disaffected residents live holed away in condos and homes — in this disturbing story.  It’s sad to me that these “soft targets” are exactly the kinds of places that urban designer and scholars have been working so hard to revive and nurture in the suburbs, the places where people might come together and break down the walls of fear that some believe built suburbia itself.

The impulses are right, to break down those walls.  It just takes more courage in all of us to stick by this mantra, and to believe that ultimately it is this very connectivity that might ultimately redeem and save us.






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